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Key decision looms on homeless issue in Abbotsford

This teepee was originally erected in the homeless protest camp in Jubilee Park. When the camp was evicted in December, the teepee relocated to Gladys Avenue, where it remains.  - Alex Butler
This teepee was originally erected in the homeless protest camp in Jubilee Park. When the camp was evicted in December, the teepee relocated to Gladys Avenue, where it remains.
— image credit: Alex Butler

Homelessness is not unique to Abbotsford, although few Lower Mainland communities have seen the issue achieve the level of public awareness and debate recently experienced in this city. That will reach another zenith on Feb. 3 as council considers a highly controversial proposal to create a supportive housing and recovery project for homeless men in the downtown area.

The high profile of homelessness in Abbotsford is due in part to last summer’s infamous incident in which city workers dumped chicken manure on a long-time homeless camp on Gladys Avenue. The tactic, ostensibly to deter street people from the area, made international headlines and drew an official city apology.

However, the dumping of the manure was a response to a long-standing problem in the community and particularly on Gladys, with a specific camp being highly visible, strewn with refuse, and a source of concern for the residents and businesses located on the street near the downtown core.

Despite discussions and meetings among a variety of community organizations, the public and local government since the incident, the chronic problem remains – with homeless moved along from site to site in what some call the “Abbotsford shuffle.”

While the community continues to look for solutions, no clear long-term plan has yet emerged from the talks – with the exception of the 20-bed housing proposal by Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) on property owned by the agency at 2408 Montvue Ave.. The project has approved provincial funding, and ACS says the location would allow clients to easily access their services.

Suggestions include the creation of a sanctioned site, based on the Dignity Village in Portland, which designated city land in an industrial area for transitional homeless camps. That concept has been put forth by two local homeless advocacy groups, 5 and 2 Ministries and the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors, but has not developed into a defined project or location.

Faith-based 5 and 2 Ministries, and the Fraser Valley Atheists Skeptics and Humanists began building small mobile shelters for homeless with community donations, which serve as temporary dwellings for those on the streets.

New deputy city manager Jake Rudolph was hired in October and tasked with addressing homelessness. He said the city is currently planning on a long-term review of its homelessness strategies, but in the meantime is dealing with issues as they arise.

More than four months after the manure dump, the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors staged a public protest in Jubilee Park. The camp was supposed to remain for three days, but organizers announced they would stay longer – until a housing solution was found. The collection of tents remained on the public property for months, and eventually the group’s refusal to obey a city eviction order led to a court injunction that forced protesters out of the park, as well as from a wooden compound that had been erected in the adjacent parking lot.

The action led to some of the homeless accessing shelter and local services, but others opted to simply relocate to different areas of the downtown core, where they remain.

The last regional homeless count in Abbotsford was done in 2011, tallying 117 people – although survey organizers acknowledge the number is at best an estimate.

Since that last count, Abbotsford has made progress through developments such as the George Schmidt Centre and the Christine Lamb Residence – two supportive housing projects built in west Abbotsford with assistance from BC Housing.

Other projects have received city approval, such as two 10-bed recovery homes on Fraser Highway. Those are now in jeopardy of not proceeding, as the lease for the land on which they’d be located is no longer available.

The city’s recent decision to overturn its bylaw prohibiting harm reduction measures such as needle exchanges has some residents concerned, but others are hoping that openly providing such services will help connect drug users with support and eventual treatment.

Though resources are already available in Abbotsford, some service providers have called for a larger variety of services based on a diversity of models to appeal to the different needs of the homeless, many of whom take issue with rules set out by specific shelters such as the Salvation Army.

The need for low-barrier housing, based on a housing-first model – where residents do not have to be clean from substance abuse to enter – was identified as a community need as early as 2008 in the homeless survey, and is the basis of the ACS proposal coming before council on Feb. 3.

Mayor Bruce Banman has said repeatedly there is no single solution to homelessness, and that the city does not have the resources or the expertise to fully deal with the issue, requiring the assistance of the provincial and federal governments.

Millions of dollars in provincial assistance is on the table in Abbotsford – but community disagreement on the location could compromise whether the funds will actually be applied.

The ACS project is low-barrier, but the men would have to enter into an agreement in order to address the issues contributing to their homelessness, such as drug abuse and mental health. The proposal is particularly controversial among the downtown community, with the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA), opposing the project based on the fact that supportive recovery use is banned in the area by the city’s zoning, put in place to help revitalize the downtown by barring businesses such as pawn shops, tattoo parlours and emergency shelters. The ADBA maintains that zoning has been effective in attracting business – a point endorsed by the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce, which also opposes the ACS project’s location.

At a public meeting to discuss the project in October, Naomi Brunemeyer of BC Housing said the proposed shelter site was selected in partnership with the city, which had full knowledge of the location and that it needed to be rezoned.

Regardless of whether the downtown project proceeds, homeless people continue to live in Abbotsford’s core.

Following the dismantling of the Jubilee Park camp, a teepee that had been erected there was relocated across from the currently under-construction Mennonite Central Committee Centre on Gladys Avenue, which is strewn with multiple homeless camps, including one at the site of the manure dumping incident.

The teepee camp was served with a city eviction notice with a deadline of Jan. 2 – a date that has come and gone. The site has since expanded, drawing in more people, tents and associated belongings and refuse.

Rudolph said due to advice from the city’s solicitor, they are following the same protocol for that site as they did with Jubilee Park, including possible application for a court order to remove the camp, but that legal action has not yet been taken.

With the issue in the forefront –  and a diversity of opinions on what to do about it – the mayor has stated that further public dialogue will be held this year. But for now, the public will have their say on one particular project.

The hearing gets underway at 7 p.m. at city hall (32315 South Fraser Way) on Monday night.

 

Proposed Homeless Housing

  • Land provided by Abbotsford Community Services
  • Funded by BC Housing – $2.4 million for capital cost and $215,000 annually in operating and support funding
  • House 20 men for up to two years, opening by late 2014 or early 2015
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