By Mike Archer. I had the privilege last Monday evening, along with Jesse Wegenast of The 5 and 2 Ministries, to speak to Professor Carole Harlow’s SOWK 210 – Introduction to Social Welfare – class at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV).
I was invited to speak about the current Abbotsford Homeless Crisis because of my extensive writing on the topic on Abbotsford Today and, in particular to discuss my column “Safe For Now“.
Jesse was invited to speak about his column, “A Crisis Of Confidence“, which, in addition to being published on Abbotsford Today was picked up and published by the Vancouver Sun.
It was the first either of us had experienced having our columns used as assigned readings.The System
The main points I led off with in the discussion were about ‘The System’, by which we invariably mean the laws, rules, regulations that define our society and their enforcement.
I argued that ‘The System’ is nothing more than piles of pieces of paper with rules on them collecting dust in a government library until and unless someone chooses to enforce what is on those pieces of paper.
As many Abbotsford residents have learned to their chagrin, when they have phoned the Ministry of Municipal Affairs in Victoria to complain about a decision or an action of the City of Abbotsford which, they believe, contravenes the Municipal Charter, the provincial government doesn’t enforce the Municipal Charter … it merely informs citizens of its contents.
It is up to citizens to force their municipal government to abide by the Municipal Charter by suing their municipal government.
That will cost the citizen upwards of $75,000 and take up to five years in court.
My argument was (and is) that, in the case of homelessness we have a combination of several systematic problems which have allowed politics, emotion, belief and business to drive the agenda on social issues rather than any sort of legal, regulatory, judicial or professionally driven approach.
As Jesse pointed out, BC is the only Canadian province which does not forbid businesses, governments or organizations from discriminating against citizens as a result of their social status.
Housing is a mixed bag of regulations and laws from federal government through the province to the municipality but none of them guarantee a citizen’s right to decent housing.
In the case of Abbotsford’s Anti Harm Reduction Bylaw, I and others have argued that the City of Abbotsford has no jurisdiction to pass a bylaw which prevents the Fraser Health Authority from performing its federally mandated job of saving lives.
That’s exactly what the Anti Harm reduction Bylaw does by making it illegal for anyone to use Abbotsford property to dispense clean needles or other harm reduction initiatives in order to save the lives of the addicted victims of the Drug War.
By passing anti-camping on public property bylaws, the City is not breaking any laws because there are no laws which say that a citizen has a right to occupy space despite not having a mortgage with a financial institution, a rental agreement or a deed to that property he or she occupies.
There is no ‘public property’ to which those without mortgages, rental agreements or a deed can go without breaking the law in Abbotsford.
Public defecation or urination are against the law. But businesses and public buildings are (as they should be) allowed to deny washroom service to non-customers. For one of the most basic human daily needs this leaves a lot of citizens with no option but to break the law on a daily basis.
So we have a series of seemingly innocuous laws and bylaws which force those at the lowest rung of society to commit criminal acts on a daily basis and we have, in Abbotsford, businesses and organizations instructing politicians to instruct police to enforce those laws.
We are very efficient at moving homeless people 30 yards at a time but we need to decide where they are supposed to go; how they are supposed to change or improve their situation; how they are supposed to live from hour-to-hour, day-to-day without breaking the law.
The only rules, regulations or laws with any teeth appear to be our Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And since I have met very few homeless people or social workers with upwards of $75,000 and five years to spend in court, the business interests, politics, emotion and belief which have, in my opinion, poisoned Abbotsford’s handling of it homeless problems and turned them into the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis, have ruled our decision-making in Abbotsford.
Therefore, those two pieces of legislation are all the homeless have … along with the help of the Pivot Legal Society which has undertaken the task of forcing the City of Abbotsford to abide by Canadian law and stop the endless abuse of its poor.The Students
I was encouraged by the questions, comments and discussion which resulted from both my points and Jesse’s. The students seemed genuinely interested in knowing what social work was like where and when it counts the most – on the street – and Jesse made it clear that, unless they were committed, knew what they were getting into and were doing it for love, they would find it very difficult.
Asked why he devotes his life to helping homeless people, those with drug addictions and alcohol problems and the mentally ill who have ended up on Abbotsford’s streets, Jesse responded saying, “Because I’m a Christian and I believe it is the Christian thing to do.”
Several students wanted to know why there aren’t more laws to protect citizens from being mistreated by City workers, police officers and government. Most were surprised to find out that, when a citizen believes his or her government has broken the Municipal Charter they are on their own and must actually sue the city in order to force it to abide by the law.Questions were asked about whether or not those who live on the streets have access to programs that will help them. Jesse responded that providing those services is an essential part of the process because the endless circle of being pushed around by police and city employees from one roadside camp to another doesn’t solve anything.
“I agree with the neighbours down the street from the Happy Tree. I don’t think it’s right that the homeless are forced to live this way or that neighbours are forced to put up with it,” he said.
Students asked whether there was any opportunity to change the minds of politicians and today’s homeless were compared to black Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and women before they got the vote – both issues which were changed by student and civic activism.
Some students asked where the church community was on the issue and wondered why we have heard nothing from them.
The role of the particular religious beliefs prevalent in this community in the manner in which the city deals with its poor was discussed.
In addition, the ‘housing first’ initiative, first pushed by the Bush administration managed to decrease homelessness by a factor of 12 percent between 2005 and 2008, was introduced and the hierarchy of needs which start with having a safe and secure place to live was also discussed.
“We changed the equation of homelessness. We used to think that people had to earn the right to go into housing, when they finally got to a certain level of moral goodness, a certain level of sobriety. Let’s get people into housing, the central antidote to homelessness, just as quickly as possible. Then, in the stability and security of that place to live, let’s deliver services,” says Mangano, of the moral or religious approach to homelessness of the Sally Ann and others.” – Philip Mangano, George Bush’s homeless czar.
I can’t speak for Jesse but I was terribly impressed with the degree to which the students were engaged in the topic. While social work may not be the most high profile or high earning degree with which to graduate, those who intend to will have the possibility of having one of the most rewarding careers possible.
None of the students seemed daunted by the difficulties, stress or frustration involved and their response to the political, social and legal issues was to attempt to figure out solutions and ways to move the agenda forward.
I hope Jesse and I were able to add some clarity, some new information and a little bit of a sense of urgency to their views on social issues in their community. I was impressed when Jesse asked how many of them had voted in the last election and nearly half of the hands in the class went up.
As Professor Harlow pointed out, it was largely through student activism and people standing up to be counted that the major social changes of the last century were achieved. People caring about change can convince politicians to change their ways … and our laws.