COLUMN: What Abbotsford can learn from New Westminster

Dear Abbotsford City Council: I hear you have a homelessness problem in your city. We did, too, in New Westminster. A few years ago.

COLUMN: What Abbotsford can learn from New Westminster

Dear Abbotsford City Council:

I hear you have a homelessness problem in your city.

We did, too, in New Westminster. A few years ago.

Today, not so much.

And I heard a tie vote (4-4) meant defeat for an application to build a 20-bed housing facility for homeless men in your city.

Big mistake.

Let me explain.

You may recall what New West was like 10 years ago. Our Downtown was awful. We’re talking chronic homelessness, all over the place. (There was a fair bit of drug dealing, too, but that’s another story.)

There were guys with their lives in shopping carts. Other folks sleeping in the same doorway others used as a urinal.

Anyway, you get the picture.

On weekday mornings in 2007, it was common to see police and city staff use a dump truck to cart off homeless people’s belongings that had become an eyesore.

They’d also break up homeless camps in parks and other hidden locations.

The “homelessness problem,” along with the drug trade, was killing New West’s image in the region.

Creating promotional brochures for the city must have been brutal. I can picture the Chamber of Commerce putting together promo brochures and insisting all photos be tight. Seeing the big picture was too bleak.

Then something happened.

In 2008, the city partnered with BC Housing to rezone four properties BC Housing had purchased.

One, College Place Hotel, had a strip joint and a beer parlour, and its claim to fame was 638 police calls for service between 2005 and 2008.

They shut the booze cans, and renovated the building with 40 supported housing units and 16 emergency shelter beds. The three other buildings included the Rhoda Kaellis Residence (24 units), Maria Keary Cottage (20 beds) and the Elizabeth Gurney House (12 units).

At the time, a few people worried about building all this capacity for housing the homeless.

Three buildings are Downtown, where some business owners feared we’d become even more of a destination for the homeless. Especially considering our neighbour Burnaby does pretty much nothing.

In 2008, the homelessness count in New West was about 72 individuals.

Doesn’t sound like many, perhaps. But in a small city centre, six dozen people without a place to sleep, urinate and in some cases, wrestle an addiction or mental health demon, can make a huge impact.

Most average folk in New West avoided Downtown in those days.

By 2010, all four BC Housing projects had opened.

A year later, the 2011 homelessness count said there were 39 people without housing on our streets, a drop of 46 per cent from 2008. (The next region-wide count is mid-March, so we’ll see how 2014 looks.)

But the best way to judge the difference is to walk in our Downtown.

LEFT: The program I’s on the Street has put homeless people to work helping to keep New West’s downtown clean.

Jam-packed shopping carts are rare. I haven’t seen someone sleeping in a doorway in years. You still see homeless people, though far fewer.

And those folks who seem to “fit the type” look like they’ve had more access to a shower, and laundry. Bluntly put, they look more together than what you’d see in the past.

As for residents in general, we like to go to our Downtown now. It’s become a more desirable place to live, work and shop.

Police, bylaw officers have more time for better things.

They may have been wary before, but now even the Downtown BIA is on board.

This year, they’re again helping to fund a program that hires homeless people to help keep the streets clean.

It’s helping to build their connection to their city, and their pride in it.

Today in New West the gap between “us” average folks and “them” homeless folks has narrowed a lot.

And from where I sit, everyone wins.


Your neighbour down the river

• Chris Bryan is editor of the New Westminster NewsLeader.