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Woolwich has clear choice on tent city proposal

Public reaction to a proposal to relocate a tent city for the homeless to a vacant lot near Breslau was quick and clear: no way, no how.

The vast majority of feedback since the idea surfaced last week is decidedly negative, often expressed in unambiguous language. A presentation to Woolwich council Tuesday night did nothing to change that stance.

What should be clear is that the proposal from A Better Tent City (ABTC) is short on details, and remains more of a pipedream than an actual plan. The group is seeking compassion rather than the required formal scrutiny of the planning process.

Currently set up on a former industrial event space, Lot42, in Kitchener, ABTC provides shelter in tiny homes (modified garden sheds) and tents. The sale of that property means the group has to vacate by June 20. Having secured the use of a 55-acre piece of farmland on Spitzig Road courtesy of the Catholic Church diocese, the group is proposing to relocate some 30 to 40 homeless people to the site.

Short on details, the plan is to service the lot with a well, septic system and electricity with the goal of establishing a farm operation that would see the residents learn farming skills as they grow their own food, establishing a market garden and similar agricultural projects.

Breslau residents vocally opposed to the idea have been letting township officials know of their displeasure. There is certainly a fair bit of NIMBY-ism at play, as numerous residents point to the perceived hazards of placing dozens of homeless people with drug addictions, mental health problems and other issues in a rural setting adjacent to a school (Woodland Christian High School) and the village.

Such concerns are valid, but there are a variety of very real hurdles that also cast doubt on the proposal. Practical considerations alone pose perhaps insurmountable difficulties, from the lack of transportation to lack of amenities. That said, ABTC organizers maintain that all services, from meals to medical care and methadone treatment for addictions, are brought to the residents, making the location less of an issue.

As it stands, however, the group can’t simply relocate the sheds and their occupants to the site: township zoning prohibits that use. The first step would be a formal application for official plan and zoning changes to accommodate the proposed uses, a process that could take a year or more and require ABTC to provide a long list of studies to support its bid.

There township has seen no formal application. In fact, the plan for a quick move to the site came as news to Woolwich officials last week when ABTC began knocking on neighbours’ doors to notify them of the group’s arrival. If the group moves ahead with relocating to the site, the township could be forced to intervene, whether by physical removal or other legal avenues.

In the event of a formal application, Woolwich will have to deal with the project as it does with any other development plan, including a public consultation period, the results of which should be clear after Tuesday night.

Based on public reaction, any council decision would be clear. But even based purely on the planning and public policy criteria, the township would be hard-pressed to vote in favour of what ABTC is proposing – the numbers just don’t add up. That includes the budget: the group says it has $160,000 on hand. Even with  the prospect of more donations, that kind of money won’t get it very far down the planning road, let alone the ambitious, and costly, ideas it has for the site.

Fast-tracking the request would be a disservice to everybody else who has followed the process, sometimes years in the making. Moreover, rushing through an ill-considered decision makes no sense.

Given what was discussed the other night, the group has a long way to go. In all likelihood, they can’t get there from here.

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