COLUMN: On the face of it, city loses if project fails

In the frustrating, sad chess game that has developed between the homeless and city hall in Abbotsford...

In the frustrating, sad chess game that has developed between the homeless and city hall in Abbotsford, a bizarre piece was recently added.

It’s somehow appropriate that it’s a huge teepee – complete with smoky campfire – because it reflects the in-your-face atmosphere that cloaks the issue in this city.

The oddball structure now squats on a piece of public lawn on the west end of Gladys Avenue.

The occupants moved there after being evicted from Jubilee Park, where the canvas abode first appeared as part of a homelessness “protest” camp that sprang up in October and required a court order to evict by late December. Ousted from the park, the “protesters” moved into the adjacent city-owned parking lot, behind a hulking four-sided plywood enclosure that had appeared overnight.

The donor(s) of the wood and labour involved in putting up the ridiculous wooden bunker in a public parking lot did it for one reason – another in-your-face move to attract attention, which it did.

Ultimately, the big plywood box disappeared, as we knew it would, but the teepee went right back up in another corner of the downtown

If it’s ejected from there, it only remains to be seen where the teepee goes up next.

And so, the game goes on with no particular city vision, particularly since the infamous manure-dumping incident last June, when city workers fertilized a popular homeless campsite on Gladys in a very misguided attempt to clear a chronic problem.

The only long-term, viable solution that’s been fielded – and it was in progress long before last summer’s embarrassment – is a proposal by Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) to build a low-barrier housing facility for homeless men a few blocks away from the downtown core.

While there are several councillors who apparently support the project, none of them has actively championed it, although the city participated in early discussions to identify the proposed site – on land owned by ACS, which comes at no cost to local taxpayers.

Mayor Bruce Banman has said several times that the homelessness issue is not going to be solved by Abbotsford alone – it needs senior government action.

True enough, and take note: The ACS proposal has been approved for $2.4 million in provincial capital funds, plus $215,000 annually in operating money. Again, no local taxpayer money is required.

The lack of local political enthusiasm is explainable. The downtown business association quickly took a  NIMBY position, predicting economic doom and gloom, and pointing out city zoning passed years ago disallows such services in the downtown area.

Of course, that’s where the homeless already are. And why would zoning ever be altered to reflect changing urban and social realities?

Not all of the local homeless may take up the offer of recovery and a roof over their heads, but it would give the city a much stronger position to clear them out of public areas.

If this plan fails to win approval, ACS, BC Housing and the city will have essentially wasted years of time and effort on a solution that addresses a host of problems.

I’ll be surprised if, in this civic election year, the controversial proposal gets a green light.

Ditto my doubt for the creation of a solid civic plan on homelessness, which requires a lot of tough love to deal with the myriad factors that create the condition, followed by the inevitable voices which will say “not that, not here, not now!”

Move the homeless off public property, and the soft-touch types harp about inhumanity. Let the street people camp wherever they want, and other citizens do a slow boil over city inaction. Approve a homeless housing project near the downtown, and business owners cry foul.

If this proposal is rejected after all this in-your-face, Victoria could easily take the money and do an about-face.

And that leaves Abbotsford and its homeless right where they are now – in a game where the pieces are tents and a teepee.

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