COLUMN: Sanctioned homeless camp rife with issues

Let there be no illusion – this city has a serious homeless problem, with some people living in deplorable conditions

“Dignity Village.”

Noble name … and in principle, a noble cause, involving the provision of a formalized “transitional” camp for the homeless – a chronic issue in this city.

Not that it isn’t in many if not most communities. Ours is just higher profile, for a number of reasons, none of them particularly good.

A very brief summary: City staff dump manure on a popular homeless camp last summer; issue becomes intensely sensitive and politicized; special advocate groups and the courts get involved; the homeless become untouchables, camping on city land where they are highly visible to make a point.

But back to the Abbotsford Dignitarian Society, the name of the group behind a proposed sanctioned camp – “Abby Digs.”

This initiative came from the ashes of the Abbotsford Community Services’ plan to build a 21-bed, low-barrier, supported housing unit for homeless men.

That project crashed and burned when the downtown business association, and others, protested over the proposed location. Gone was $15 million-plus in provincial funding. In short, the mayor and three other councillors who caved to the opposition blew a major, long-term opportunity.

Let there be no illusion – this city has a serious homeless problem, with some people living in deplorable conditions, physically and mentally, in which real “choice” often is not part of their landscape unless there is focused and sustained help.

Is the bonafide camp concept the answer?

Strictly stopgap, and littered with practical and political landmines which, when they go off, could take taxpayers as collateral damage.

For starters, it’s proposed on private land, on Valley Road near the garbage transfer site, more than two kilometres out of downtown.

The city is being expected to provide water and sewer services.

And the homeless wouldn’t just camp – they’d live in specially built cabins.

If the city supports this, it would be unprecedented. Publicly funded servicing of private property; rezoning or special permit use granted for agricultural land for residential purposes that aren’t part of any community plan; and likely some creative interpretations of building codes.

Then there are the liability issues. This little community would be directly sanctioned by the city, which may be legally vulnerable for every overdose, assault and accident that occurred within.

Remember, some of the camp occupants are drug-addicted and often addled individuals who would be trekking down the Abbotsford-Mission Highway to get to the Salvation Army and other social services.

Where might the blame be laid if one of them gets hit by a vehicle?

This is assuming, of course, that all the denizens of the teepee town on Gladys Avenue and other shanty-villes will even be interested in moving off their conveniently situated chunks of municipal land and Hydro and railway rights-of-way.

And if they do, what’s to convince them to “transition” out of the new camp, if it does come to pass?

The organizers are so far saying there wouldn’t be a maximum time of stay for occupants. That would be another huge mistake, missing the critical point being made by other cities such as Calgary which have found long-term homeless solutions.

Their message is clear: Shift from managing homelessness to ending it.

Providing transitional shelter with nothing to transition to, or motivation to do so, is a virtual guarantee that such a facility – with all of its shortcomings and liabilities – will stay put long into the future.

It’s more than out of the box – it’s a tar pit.

Of course, the other rub is this. The mayor and councillors who voted against the ACS housing project, slapping the provincial hand that feeds, are now hoist on their own tent poles.

How do you turn down fully funded, turn-key supported homeless housing, and then later say no to Abby Digs – the only other solution on the horizon? And in an election year, to boot.

At this point, a sanctioned village is the sole strategy on the table, short of whatever the civic homelessness task force might suggest, or what might be salvaged from the ACS plan.

If the city truly intends to head down this path, it had better put some absolute limits on how this project proceeds, under what strict conditions it ends, and then naively hope it doesn’t become another “right,” not a service, for the individuals and organizations that have grasped the homeless issue in Abbotsford and made it into ground zero of a socio-political campaign.

And that’s a camp story for another time.

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