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Panel discussion on homelessness held at UFV

Jim Burkinshaw, Mayor Bruce Banman, Jesse Wegenast and Police Chief Bob Rich sit on a panel to discuss homelessness on Tuesday.  - Alex Butler
Jim Burkinshaw, Mayor Bruce Banman, Jesse Wegenast and Police Chief Bob Rich sit on a panel to discuss homelessness on Tuesday.
— image credit: Alex Butler

A panel discussion on how to address homelessness in Abbotsford brought together the subjects of a local documentary at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) on Tuesday.

The discussion followed a showing of The Chicken Manure Incident by filmmaker Kevin Miller, which follows the aftermath of a controversial decision by Abbotsford city staff to dump chicken manure on a homeless camp last June.

The film featured Mayor Bruce Banman, Police Chief Bob Rich, Jim Burkinshaw of the Abbotsford Christian Leaders’ Network, and Jesse Wegenast of the 5 and 2 Ministries, all of whom sat on the panel.

The event was organized by the UFV Urbanists, a new student-run group of community advocates.

Derrick Swallow, founding member of the group, said they hoped the panel would provide insight into the issue.

Wegenast acknowledged that some things have changed in Abbotsford since the film was made last summer, such as the end of Abbotsford’s bylaw against harm reduction measures. But he was quick to add that for the homeless, many things have also stayed the same. He said that although ideas have come forward, few have been acted upon.

“Everyone has learned how to talk the talk in Abbotsford… In the meantime, people are dying.”

He advocated for the city to adopt a “just say yes” policy to ideas that come forward, instead of “spinning our tires.”

Burkinshaw said the city needed to “eat some humble pie,” after recently rejecting Abbotsford Community Services’ provincially funded proposal to build a 20-bed housing project for men. He added that it’s time to consider different ways to address homelessness, including a sanctioned camp, as previously suggested by Wegenast.

Banman said although it may seem that the city has done little to address the problem, staff are currently looking at various ideas, including models of supportive housing, which will come before city council in March.

Rich said there are concerns about safety when it comes to homeless camps and bringing people with mental health or addiction issues together. He said that is why he encourages supportive housing where there are ways to deal with issues as they arise. He also said there is a need for mental health outreach.

Rich said that one in 10 calls to the Abbotsford Police Department is for someone who is mentally ill.

“We try to be human … but we are cops. It’s not what we know how to fix.”

Banman said the Fraser Health Authority receives $79 in per capita mental health funding, while Vancouver Coastal Health Authority spends about $275, calling the funding “drastically inadequate in this region.” He said that mental health and addictions is a provincial mandate that needs to be addressed.

He said one of the reasons the homelessness problem exists is that things were “previously done poorly” to the mentally ill – such as electroshock therapy or sterilization – pressing the Supreme Court to declare “that the right to freedom is more important than their right to be healthy.

“The only time we lock people up is when they actually become a danger to others and not themselves. I think as a nation, we need to revisit that. There is something inherently wrong that we cannot put someone away for their own good.”

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