LETTER: Dignity village not a best practice approach to homelessness

Encampment seems prone to become a jurisdictional and litigious mess

Re: Abbotsford Official Community Plan Amendment and Temporary Residential Use Permit Applications (OCP14-008 & TUP14-006)

I am strongly opposed to the creation of a cabin or “Dignity village” for many reasons.

Six months ago, Abbotsford City Council voted against rezoning to build a much-needed supportive housing program for homeless men through Abbotsford Community Services and BC Housing, both legitimate and reputable organizations.  Supportive housing is an evidence-based best practice approach to homelessness.  “Dignity village” is not an evidence-based best practice.  Abbotsford City refused to do what neighboring communities successfully do with supportive housing, yet is considering being the pilot project for such an encampment.  As Pastor Ward Draper, an advocate for the project notes, “it could be the first sanctioned dignity camp in all of Canada” (Abbotsford Times, October 28, 2013).

The ADBA strongly opposed the supportive housing project that was ultimately quashed by Council.  A vocal member of the newly-formed Abbotsford Dignitarian Society proposing to build and operate “Dignity village”, is outgoing ADBA chair Paul MacLeod.  The ADBA has donated $10,000 and someone is offering up their unused land, far away from the downtown area.  This project seems to be more about furthering the interests of the ADBA than the homeless population.  I suspect if the homeless population truly wanted to live off a remote section of the highway, they would have already made their way there.  It is impossible to not be left with the perception that this $10,000 is something akin to “shush” money in an exploitative situation from the powerful to the powerless.

In the business of public service, it is not only our actions we must be accountable for, but the perceptions of our actions.  There is too large a gap between Abbotsford Council rejecting a supportive housing project and now considering a “Dignity village”.  The glaring disparity creates a strong impression that the current objective of the powerful supporting the project is not to adequately care for this vulnerable group of citizens, but to displace them to a location “out of sight, out of mind”.

If such an encampment is really the solution, it makes logical sense it be created in town, allowing residents direct access to social, health, and employment services.  I have difficulty understanding how such a project could be okay if built out of town, but is not okay in a central location in town.  It is a real concern that the response time of emergency services would be extended.  I believe we will create further harm by displacing already marginalized citizens to a location that is not visible, easily accessible and thereby unsafe.

Abbotsford City has been vehemently opposed to all such encampments in the past, using eviction notices, court applications, police enforcement, and some questionable acts that garnered national negative media attention.  There is no precedent for how a “Dignity village” would be governed and operated under Canadian law.  It is worth considering that any sanctioned encampment could quickly snowball into another source of criticism and shame for our community.  I am curious how the City would manage not renewing such TRU permits and the ensuing inferred liability.  “Dignity village” seems prone to become a jurisdictional and litigious mess.

Abbotsford Council rejected a secured, fully-funded evidence based best practice supportive housing solution to homelessness when it denied the final go ahead to Abbotsford Community Services.  Proceeding on the “Dignity village” proposal, financially backed by the ADBA, leaves me with the perception that Abbotsford Council cares less about the wellbeing of our homeless population, and more about appeasing the business community.  I believe Abbotsford Council grossly erred in rejecting supportive housing and would also err sanctioning this encampment.  Two wrongs do not make a right.   Another wrong decision now will not undo the damage of an earlier wrong decision.

Abbotsford should instead attempt to rectify the harm that has been done.  Council could grant the rezoning and explore with Abbotsford Community Services and BC Housing how we can recover the millions of dollars of capital and operational funding that has been lost from our community.

I am a property owner in Abbotsford and have been increasingly ashamed of such.  My next home will not be in Abbotsford if the City acquiesces and proceeds with “Dignity village”, as these choices reflect poorly on every one of us.  I refuse to live in a town where this is the best we can do.


Bev Shields