At a rally in front of City Hall on Friday, Whispers of Hope board chair Louise Heck (centre front) invited anyone who has eaten, shopped, volunteered or otherwise been involved with Whispers to stand in solidarity on the steps of City Hall. (Kathleen Saylors/Grand Forks Gazette)

City postpones Whispers of Hope closure

The organizations will vacate the riverfront property within six months.

After a tension-filled week that included a rally on the steps of City Hall, the City of Grand Forks has issued notice to Whispers of Hope Benevolence Association and the Boundary Emergency and Transition Housing Society (BETHs) that the organizations have 30 days to come into compliance with their lease and the city’s bylaws.

The organizations will still be required to vacate the premises within six months, in advance of the end of the lease in June 2018, regardless of whether the property is brought to compliance within 30 days.

This move follows the city’s prior termination of the lease and order to stop operations within 48 hours that was given on Wednesday.

“Council re-visited the timelines in their decision from last week regarding the closure of the City owned building occupied by Whispers of Hope and BETHS,” reads a release published late Tuesday afternoon. “The City issued notice [Tuesday] for the soup kitchen, thrift store and emergency shelter to bring their premise into compliance with City bylaws within 30 days, and to maintain the standard set in the lease agreement, or they would be required to vacate the premise. The notice included direction to vacate the property within six months in accordance with the lease agreement.”

This decision by council follows escalating concerns over the state of the riverside park near Whispers of Hope, which is located at 7212 Riverside Drive, as well as broad public backlash to the decision to cease the community kitchen’s operations.

Grand Forks mayor Frank Konrad said the issue had become increasingly serious, reaching a fever point this spring.

“When you have statements like ‘we are leaving Grand Forks’ or tourists saying, ‘we are never coming back to Grand Forks,’ it is quite an alarming situation we have never encountered before,” he said. “We have had homeless here for years but it is growing and that is the element that sends a red flag.”

However, after a rally organized by residents in solidarity with Whispers last Friday, board president Louise Heck informed the community that Whispers would not be ceasing operations as ordered. Many community members spoke in support of Whispers and the services it provides.

Over the course of the last year, many members of council have expressed a desire to see Whispers moved from that location and the lease not renewed when it was due to expire in June 2018.

Residents have expressed concerns about drug use and garbage along the riverside spot for more than a year. Posts on social media, as well as residents who have attended council meetings, say the campers in tents along the river, needles, human waste and aggressive people have made the riverside path “unusable.”

Members of council, including Konrad, have said on many occasions that the problem — which is attributed to clients of Whispers of Hope (though it is recognized by both sides that the problem exists largely off the property that Whispers leases) — has ruined the riverfront walkway for residents and tourists.

The city said it feels the extension will help the societies move forward.

“The revised notice will give the societies additional time to plan their transition while enforcing the City’s bylaws and sections of the lease that have lapsed over the last year,” the release said.

Last week Konrad declined to answer all questions regarding legal opinions the city may have sought or any potential further legal action. The city also declined to provide council’s voting record on the resolution.