Members of a society that manages a homeless shelter and a supportive housing facility in Port Alberni, B.C., say they're shocked and confused after B.C.Housing gave notice to terminate their contracts and look for new operators to manage the building housing their services.
The Port Alberni Shelter Society (PASS) says its community legacy, the quality of shelter care and about 50 employees at 3939 Eighth Ave. will be left in limbo when the current contract ends on March 31.
"It was really a gut punch," said Myron Jespersen, board chair for PASS, which was formed in 1972 and provides charitable housing, food, clothing and health services at multiple sites around the city.
"We poured our heart and soul into developing [the shelter] facility, and we have, over the years, developed relationships with residents," said Jespersen, noting extensive community input has gone into running its housing services.
"We don't think that that's something you can just flip a switch and hand over to someone else."
The society began designing and constructing the building, known as Our Home on Eighth, in 2010 and officially opened it in 2018. It is home to a 30-person homeless shelter and provides supportive housing for about another 30 people.
Jespersen said it was built with government funding and was transferred to B.C. Housing ownership, but the society still operates all the services.
On De. 31, Boughton Law Corporation, the counsel for B.C. Housing, issued a legal notice to the society, stating its intention to end the agreement.
Jespersen says B.C. Housing has not provided a reason. There is a clause in the contract that allows either party to end the agreement 90 days in advance without giving one.
He said it's unclear what will happen to around 50 of the Society's 100-or-so employees once the contract's term is up.
B.C. Housing plans to ensure 'seamless transition'
A statement from B.C. Housing says requests to find a new operator will be issued in the coming weeks and will "prioritize organizations that can ensure safety for women and vulnerable individuals" while respecting Indigenous cultures.
It said it will work with PASS to ensure the transition is "seamless for residents and clients" and has a duty to ensure staff are being supported but did not say what that support would look like, adding that it couldn't comment further because the matter is being discussed through legal counsel.
Wes Hewitt, the executive director of PASS, says his "biggest concern is what effect the transition will have on ... residents."
He said the society is urging residents and staff to write their local MLA.
Shelter operations under recent public scrutiny
The society came under public scrutiny in late 2020 when protesters complained about the shelter's operations.
B.C. Housing hired a third-party contractor that November to review management at the shelter and supportive housing site, and by March 2021, had formed a list of recommendations, including new operational policies, improved staff training and increased Indigenous representation among staff.
In February 2022, B.C. Housing said it had worked closely with PASS to implement the recommendations and had "full confidence in [PASS]'s continued management of its sites."
Hewitt would not speculate on whether the prior review might have anything to do with the contracts being terminated but said all the recommendations were followed.
He said B.C. Housing audits the shelters every year, and he believes the parties have been on good terms for the last couple of years.
Jespersen said the society plans to meet with B.C. Housing representatives on Wednesday to try to discuss options for moving forward.