COLUMN:The homeless won’t just fade away

Abbotsford News editor Andrew Holota weighs in on the incident in which city staff dumped chicken manure on a homeless camp.

By now, city hall is probably fervently hoping Manure-gate will fade into the bushes. Here’s hoping it won’t.

Everyone between here and Great Britain has heard of the debacle in Abbotsford last week, in which city crews dumped chicken manure on a homeless camp.

As one could easily predict, the crap hit the fan.

Following apologies by the mayor and city manager, the mess was cleaned up two days later – also by city crews.

And the homeless people who were targeted by the dung simply moved down the road a few metres.

No harm, no foul … ?

Actually, there was plenty of foulness, mostly surrounding the city’s reputation.

Abbotsford took a whipping from homeless advocates, human rights crusaders, anti-Bible belt critics, and a throng of ordinary folks who thought that throwing manure on a spot where transients hang out is awfully mean-spirited.

But, sprinkled through all the Facebook posts were a number of comments that raised the other side of the issue.

What do we do with homeless people – especially the ones who want to stay that way?

It may be hard to understand for mainstream citizens who treasure their homes and yards, but there are individuals out there – for a variety of reasons – who want nothing to do with a structured life, shelters or low-cost housing – at least when the weather is relatively temperate.

So that leaves the question: What to do with them? Just leave them alone?

Take a drive past the site on Gladys Avenue. It looks like hell.

So do most homeless camps I’ve seen. They’re not something most of us would like to see proliferating around town.

Yet, as the city has just demonstrated, moving chronic squatters by rousting them out of a camp, and carting their stuff to the dump just results in them shifting to another site, and accumulating more junk.

Of course, there are the less imaginative social engineers out there who simply suggest the homeless should “Get a job.”

Perhaps they are the same people who think that denying clean needles to drug addicts is a helpful policy.

Talk about denial…

The chronic homeless person is someone who is likely suffering from some degree of mental illness, drug addiction, a deteriorated physical state, poor personal hygiene, and a host of other problems, not to mention an acute disinterest in employment.

Not exactly your exemplary job applicant.

So, put them in work camps and force them to perform some sort of labour? Aside from the obvious human rights issues associated with that, there is also the question of the work they’d be displacing – to the disadvantage of the able-bodied who actually want jobs.

Then there is the small matter of cost. Just like that needle thing – it costs a lot less preventing illness than it does to treat it.

It costs a lot less to clean up homeless camps than it would be to pen up the “offenders” for … how long?

No, this issue is going to take far more than “get a job.”

There are organizations in Abbotsford who offer answers, although they claim city hall hasn’t been doing much listening.

Among them is the Abbotsford Social Development and Advisory Committee, which met yesterday morning with solely this issue on its agenda. Neither Mayor Bruce Banman nor city manager George Murray were available to attend.

That’s unfortunate, given it was an excellent initial opportunity to “repair the damage,” as promised by Banman.

Who knows, perhaps there are plans to strike a mayor’s task force to delve into the issue, or pull together all the stakeholders for a series of meetings, or call in independent experts to examine Abbotsford’s homelessness challenge.

If any of that is in the works, it would be good to let the public know. So far, the city’s communication strategy has been to bolt down the message, lock up the details, and offer up apologies, but little else.

Banman and Murray repeatedly said last week that the buck stops with them.

For now, it appears that it has.