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Homelessness group to make another pitch for Woolwich site June 8

Still hoping to move later this month to a site new Breslau, organizers of A Better Tent City are busy working on a plan B, C and D in case that idea falls through.

“We can’t afford to wait. We have to be looking at a range of other options,” said volunteer Jeff Wilmer of ongoing efforts to find a new location for to house the homeless.

A Better Tent City (ABTC) currently provides tiny homes and a range of services for some 50 people on the site of a former event space, Lot42, in an industrial area of Kitchener. Following the sale of the property, the group has to vacate by June 20.

ABTC has appealed to Woolwich council to waive normal planning procedures to fast-track the use of a vacant farm property on Spitzig Road. The proposal sparked a huge backlash from Breslau residents opposed to ABTC setting up shop in the area. Woolwich officials have been inundated with emails and calls in the past week, both before and after a June 1 presentation to council by ABTC.

Since Tuesday’s meeting, Willmer said the organization has heard from people who are supportive of the group’s work, but not the proposed location.

The 55-acre site was offered up by the Hamilton Diocese of the Catholic Church as a new home for the group, which was operating in Kitchener under a temporary-use designation due to expire next month. The land, which is rented out to a farmer and planted with crops, contains no structures and no services. ABTC is proposing to drill a well, install a septic system and run electricity to the site.

Woolwich council will hear more delegates on June 8 prior to deciding on the request to waive standard procedures. Thus far, however, planning staff appears to be pushing for ABTC to submit a formal planning application, following all of the usual steps to have the land rezoned for the proposed use, which isn’t legal under current zoning.

That process would take a minimum of six to 12 months, which doesn’t fit ABTC’s timeline, acknowledged Wilmer, who is fully aware of the procedure having been the chief administrative officer for the city of Kitchener prior to retiring in 2017.

Woolwich sticking with the full process would require a shift in priorities, he said.

“If they want us to do due process – if on Tuesday Woolwich says ‘go through due process’ – we’ll have to explore other options. We need a site for this coming winter.”

Woolwich chief administrative officer David Brenneman said Friday that ABTC has the right to ask for an exemption to the planning procedures, but has been told that council might require a formal application process.

“Due process does exist, and that’s also an option, for them to go through the formal process,” he said, noting that council has to hear from all sides and can’t fetter its decision ahead of a vote on the issue.

It’s been less than a month since the township heard ABTC’s search for a new site included sites in Woolwich and just two weeks that the organization would be looking more closely at the Spitzig Road property.

The search for a new location began in earnest about five months ago when it looked like the Lot42 property was going to be sold, said Willmer, noting the urgency to an alternative by June 20.

The organization has some short-term options for the summer months, but needs a longer-term solution, he said, adding he doesn’t like to use the word “permanent” given that he remains hopeful the Region of Waterloo will find a way to house all homeless people.

For now ABTC focuses on those people who fall between the cracks of government services and the shelter system, often due to issues such as addiction and mental health problems, said Wilmer, noting much of what the group is doing is new territory.

 “It’s working out really well for the residents, making their lives more stable,” he said of the approach taken by A Better Tent City.

The ABTC request is on the council agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting, with more than a dozen people already registered to speak to the issue.

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