COLUMN: Attention on homeless is an opportunity

It’s not that homelessness is necessarily any more acute or complex here than in any other sizable community in Canada, or the U.S. ...

COLUMN: Attention on homeless is an opportunity

Stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Choose your cliche. They all apply to the City of Abbotsford and its homelessness issue.

Depending on your viewpoint, moving them out of their camps is cold-hearted and short-sighted. Yet leaving them be is ignoring citizens’ concerns. Providing housing and support services is hotly controversial, and financially, not a municipal responsibility.

It’s not that homelessness is necessarily any more acute or complex here than in any other sizable community in Canada, or the U.S. – at its base factors.

The June “incident” in which city workers dumped chicken manure on a known homeless camp seriously skewed the local optics, rocketing it into the public and media spotlight.

That patently foolish decision seemingly paralyzed the city for a couple of months, while officials contemplated the next step.

In the meantime, the homeless were unmolested, with their tarp-and-tent settlements growing in full public view on Gladys Avenue; on Montvue right across from the local community services office; and a few other locales in the downtown area.

Finally, the city took action, posting an eviction notice on the Gladys camp, deemed to be a health hazard. The morning of the deadline move, the helpful folks at 5 and 2 Ministries, which advocates for the homeless, provided a couple of pickup trucks, and most of the belongings and junk was moved right back up the road to the “Happy Tree,” which had been fertilized earlier in the year by city crews.

The targeted camp was cleaned up by a private contractor, and by the end of the day, one occupant had already pitched his pup tent.

What was achieved?

Aside from gaining more public and media attention, including every major Vancouver TV station, not much in the view of most people. Or was there?

What is positive about this black comedy is precisely the attention it has brought to the issue of homelessness, and the opportunity that exists to address it beyond last week’s shell game.

Along with other communities, this city is faced with a situation it cannot, and should not, solve itself.

Homelessness won’t be addressed, as some online commenters have suggested, by cutting off services for street people and pushing them out. They’ll just pop up elsewhere.

This is an immensely complex problem involving drug addiction, mental health issues, and a host of other difficult circumstances and behaviours.

While a critical component, mere compassion isn’t an answer, either. Witness the unpleasant mess created in the two most public camps, and the distress they cause nearby businesses and residents.

The opportunity here is for Mayor Bruce Banman and this council to rally the troops.

Bring together the civic politicians of every other Valley and Lower Mainland community, and mobilize sustained lobbying of provincial and federal representatives to finally acknowledge homelessness as an issue that urgently needs a focused, united response – not fitful streams of senior government funding for individual projects and initiatives.

There’s been momentum created here. Use it.

Get in front of the cameras. Get in front of influential faces.

The accumulated power of civic politicians and their constituents can be highly persuasive, if brought to bear in a carefully strategized, long-term campaign.

In the meantime, the opponents of a proposed provincially funded low-barrier men’s shelter near downtown Abbotsford – and the council members who will soon consider zoning to permit it – must accept that this is part of a long-term solution.

NIMBYism isn’t relevant.

The homeless are already in the backyard.