Council rejects residential care home application from John Howard Society and River Bank Development

Prince Albert City Hall -- Herald file photo.

Prince Albert city council has denied an application to build a residential care home for at risk men at 2201 First Avenue West.

Mayor Greg Dionne was one of five council members to vote against the joint proposal from River Bank Development Corp. and the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan. He said the care home idea was a good one, but couldn’t support the project because local residents were against it.

“The neighbours don’t want it,” Dionne said during Monday’s meeting. “I understand where they’re coming from, and it’s nothing (negative) about the John Howard Society. It’s nothing (negative) about River Bank. It’s about the quality of life that they expected when they bought their homes in that neighbourhood.”

Dionne said the 2200 block was an older neighbourhood, but young families were moving in and fixing up the area. He told council he toured the area on Sunday, and couldn’t find a single resident who supported the proposal. He said those voices needed to be heard too.

“We’re here to listen to the residents, not just John Howard” he added. “They don’t live next door…. The pregnant lady with her two young kids lives next door, and they have just as much weight, in my opinion, in this chamber as anyone else.”

Couns. Ted Zurakowski, Blake Edwards, Don Cody and Tony Head also voted against the proposal, in a close 5-4 decision.

All four said they sympathized with both the John Howard Society and River Bank, and lauded the work both organizations do. However, that wasn’t enough to convince them to give their support.

Cody said he was leaning towards supporting the application until he read letters from residents who lived in the area and opposed it. Zurakowski also said he came to council looking for reasons to support the project, but hesitated to do so without further consultation.

“I’m trying to find a way to say yes,” Zurakowski said during the meeting. “The folks living around that area, I’ve been chatting with them and talking with them, (and) I don’t think they’re being unreasonable. Some of their concerns have been answered, and I’m grateful for that, but some of the concerns still remain.”

“This is a difficult problem. There’s no question about that,” Cody added.

“I think the John Howard Society does great work as well, but, at the same time we also need to look after our own citizens. Sure, we’re going to try and rehabilitate five people, but what are we going to do to … the others that are around there? They have bought homes there. They’ve made their living there. They’ve made their livelihood there. They’re raising their children there, and all of a sudden, we’re going to cause great upheaval to them.”

Edwards said he thought the home was a great idea that filled a need Prince Albert desperately needed. However, he also said he wouldn’t support a project local residents were so firmly against.

Head told council the John Howard Society’s program was a good one, but he too was concerned about the feedback he received from residents. Head said he would have liked to see broader feedback from those who live further than 75 meters away from the proposed development. Zurakowski also said he had concerns about the consultation process.

John Howard Society of Saskatchewan CEO Shawn Fraser said he’s disappointed by council’s decision, but understood their need to weigh multiple concerns.

“It’s always difficult for a development of this nature. That’s just the reality of zoning approvals when there’s some change coming to peoples’ neighbourhood,” Fraser said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “I don’t fault council for having to make a complex decision. Obviously, it wasn’t the outcome we were hoping for, but I realize city council has a lot of interests they have to balance.”

Fraser added that they knew there were some concerns, but had hoped they were answered. He was particularly concerned too many people did not understand what type of people would be living in the house.

The John Howard Society has federal funding for the next four years to implement a preventative anti-gang program for young men in Prince Albert. Fraser said they’d be working with men who transitioned out of Ministry of Social Services care after turning 18, since they’re the most vulnerable to gang recruitment.

“We’re trying to catch them before they fall through the cracks,” Fraser explained. “That’s not to say we would never work with a youth with a criminal record. Obviously, there are lots of people in society with a criminal record. That’s just the reality of it. But, it is to say we would be working with young people where hopefully we can have an impact on their lives before they’re entrenched (in) the gang lifestyle.”

Fraser said the five men living in the house would have been under 24-hour supervision. The John Howard Society has seven similar houses in Saskatoon and Regina, but nothing identical to what they were trying to set up in Prince Albert.

He added that the preventative gang involvement program will still go ahead as planned, but they may have to do without the providing living quarters and 24-hour supervision.

“We’ll have a case load across PA over the next four years of about 15 people at any given time,” Fraser said. “We just now have to figure out how we’re going to do that supervised housing element, and what that’s going to look like, because that’s ultimately what was on the table (at Monday’s meeting).”

Couns. Dawn Kilmer, Charlene Miller, Terra Lennox-Zepp and Dennis Ogrodnick all voted in favour of the joint application.

Ogrodnick was the most vocal supporter. He argued Prince Albert desperately needed the type of service the John Howard Society hoped to provide, and had a track record of success and wanted to help the community.

“It’s a tough thing to have next to you. I understand that, and I understand why residents don’t want it, but I think with that idea of supervision and the programming, and the success of the John Howard Society, (it will work),” he told council. “This is not a fly-by-night organization. This is a well-established organization than has done tremendously good work…. We need more of these homes. I would hope that if this one goes ahead, the John Howard Society will open up 10 or 15 more homes … so I urge council to take the tough stand and support this.”

“If we want to start tackling the problems of gangs and crime and violence that we hear about, this is a way to doing it,” he added.

Kilmer also said homes like this were desperately needed in Prince Albert. She also challenged council members to find an acceptable location if 2201 First Avenue West wouldn’t work.

“If not there, where?” she asked during the meeting.

“At times, hard decisions have to be made,” she added. “Our city is one of caring and compassionate people … and I feel that what the John Howard Society is trying to do is establish a program where young men can be in a good neighbourhood, and can see the value of themselves in their neighbours.”