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Amid the clamour for more social housing and addiction treatment in Vancouver is a project at Clark Drive and First Avenue that promises to deliver both, in spades. Yet instead of being roundly embraced, which would seem fitting in a city grappling with both housing and opioid overdose crises, the proposal is under attack from some of its neighbours, namely members of the Grandview-Woodland Area Council.

It’s too tall, too experimental, too risky, says GWAC president Dana Cromie.

“If it doesn’t work well, they’ve spent all their money in one place, and it will be there forever.”

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There is no doubt the project will have a large footprint. A joint project between the city, Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing, the complex will contain 90 social housing units, 51 in-patient withdrawal management treatment beds, out-patient withdrawal services and a sobering centre - the drunk tank in past parlance. There will also be space for a social enterprise centre and on-site Indigenous health and wellness programs.

The site will first have to be rezoned for more height and density than the recently approved neighbourhood plan contemplates. GWAC claims to eschew NIMBYism, but it fought to ratchet down apartment heights and density when the area plan was made. More recently, the group opposed the 12-storey Kettle project that also had a social housing component. The city acknowledges the new project “challenges some of the urban design parameters” set out in the neighbourhood plan but says those concerns are outweighed by the project’s value.

On this point, the city is right. Ninety units of housing is nothing to sneer at, particularly when BC Housing promises to rent half of them to households at or below the BC Housing income limits – currently $68,000 for a three-bedroom unit. This kind of affordability is rare in Vancouver where rents have soared and vacancy rates hover at around 1 per cent.

Vancouver is also desperate for drug-treatment options. The opioid crisis claimed more than 350 lives in Vancouver in 2018 and we must do everything possible to help people trying to kick a deadly addiction.

To be fair, GWAC does not propose cancelling the entire project. Mr. Cromie says GWAC is fine with the affordable housing but is worried about the treatment facility and doubly concerned about the sobering centre. But when pushed to articulate what exactly residents foresee the problems to be, Mr. Cromie waffles and admits he isn’t as concerned as some in the group.

“I think a lot of it is fear of the unknown.”

To make a dent in our housing crisis, we must build housing. To save lives, we must offer drug treatment – the farther from the drug-ridden Downtown Eastside, the better. As for the sobering centre, where medically trained professionals watch over highly intoxicated people, it too saves lives.

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But does the sobering centre need to be under the same roof with social housing and drug rehabilitation? Residents worry that after occupants sleep it off, they will be given the boot and left to wander the neighbourhood in search of their next drink or fix.

Coastal Health insists it will work out a plan with people leaving the centre to get them home. And it argues placing all services together offers both economies of scale and treatment opportunities for sobering-centre occupants. However, the authority admits it doesn’t track how many people transition from its existing sobering centre to detox.

Pivot Legal Society, which lobbied hard for a sobering centre, believes it should be a standalone operation and says there is no point pushing people into detox before they are ready.

Coastal Health may well be able to artfully run the sobering centre so that kids walking to school won’t be met by dishevelled, hungover folks trudging home. But it seems the health authority hasn’t yet convinced its neighbours.

When we ask residents in any neighbourhood to accept an institutional building with the potential to disrupt traffic, views and the neighbourhood mix for the city’s greater good, we need to go the extra mile to address their concerns. There is a public hearing set for Feb. 20 where Coastal Health and its partners will find out, if they don’t already know, they’re not quite there yet.

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