By Mike Archer. Abbotsford City Council held, what turned out to be, a marathon public hearing on the Abbotsford Community Services (ACS)/BC Housing Supportive Housing Proposal which has become, in many people’s minds, another of the major symbols of the City’s inability to deal with its large and growing homeless problem.
Win Wachsmann Photo
Though, at the end of it all, Councillor’s John Smith and Bill MacGregor moved to end the hearing and vote on the issue at a later date, there was a palpable sense in the room that the community’s patience with it’s leadership has run out.
When a man from Chilliwack, who has had his life turned around because of supportive housing, tried to share his positive experience someone on the ADBA side of the chamber shouted out that he shouldn’t be allowed to speak because he wasn’t from Abbotsford. It was one of the more embarrassing moments for a community which has grown visibly weary of being defined by such insensitive, cruel and thoughtless actions towards the marginalized and the broken.
While a contingent of small business owners from the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) fought hard to maintain their latest position, that council has no right to effect a rezoning on which they had based their financial decisions, speaker after speaker pointed out that all council ever seems to to do at public hearings and meetings on a monthly basis is to consider and most often approve rezoning applications.
The fear that the homeless men and women who live in the downtown area would somehow destroy the businesses there if they were allowed to come indoors and start rebuilding their lives began to sound … well … silly.
Bob Bos, who, along with Councillor John Smith and former Councillor Bruce Beck, famously told Pastor Christoph Reiners, Pastor at the Peace Lutheran Church, to stop feeding Abbotsford’s homeless population, spoke eloquently of the difficulties he was having renting out a number of the vacant properties he owns in downtown Abbotsford.
Several small business owners, who told council they were having a tough time in the current economy, spoke of their fear that allowing the homeless to get off the street would somehow hurt their business.
Dale Klippenstein, a former downtown business owner and the former head of the ADBA, told council he was ashamed of the stance he took over a decade ago in opposition to a mental illness treatment facility in the downtown core fearing, much like today’s ADBA members do, that it would destroy the downtown.
“I was misguided” he said, pointing out that most citizens and even members of the ADBA don’t really even know where the facility is. He went on to say that it certainly hasn’t ruined downtown Abbotsford.
Allan Asaph, Executive Director of the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce, and Mike Welte, President, both reaffirmed the Chamber’s position that, while some of their best friends work at Abbotsford Community Services, rezoning is not a method for change in a community which the Chamber supports if it means changing and adpating to new situations as history marches on (the definition of rezoning).
In a particularly poignant comment, Brent Peters addressed Mayor Banman directly saying, “Mayor Banman last September you said on national television that this was a complicated issue which required members of the faith community, the charities, other levels of government, service providers to all, come together to solve this issue.
“Well, Mr Mayor, we are all here. And we are here in force.”
Peters went on to tell Banman that, this year, for the first time, he has been embarrassed of the community he calls home and spoke of having to explain to his young daughter why Abbotsford treats its homeless people with chicken manure and harassment.
Mayor Banman had trouble holding citizens to the five-minute window for comments and repeatedly told women who came to the podium to speak that they were not addressing the specific zoning issue at hand by talking about homelessness.
The mayor tried to stifle comments from Lily Kaetler who pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce and the ADBA had both supported the millions being spent on the Calgary Flames and the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (AESC) and had, in fact publicly stated that they support the housing first model on which the ACS proposal is based. When she pointed out the number of elected officials in the room who were past or present members of the ADBA and the Chamber, Banman told her she had to stop talking.
The mayor used the same tactic with a number of other women who spoke in support of the ACS proposal but found plenty of time for women from the ADBA who insisted on telling the community how hard it was being a small business owner.
When he tried the same tactic on Bas Stevens, Stevens barked back at him to let him finish, and continued his remarks.
The Abbotsford Foundation and VanCity confirmed the $250,000 in funding they were bringing to the table and congratulated the community for finding the strength to deal with such a controversial issue.
Advocate for the homeless James Breckenridge pointed out that it was a bylaw change that allowed the ADBA to exist in the first place and that fact, as a result of not having an address, the people whose lives were being discussed – the homeless – were unable to comments at the public hearing due to the lack of an address. Several speakers pointed out that, since the property in question is as far away from downtown Abbotsford as is possible within the C7 zoning area, if the proposal were on a property across the street the whole discussion would be moot.
One speaker even suggested that, if the ACS and BC Housing had asked for a rezoning across the street from the vacant lot on which they propose to build the project, they could have simply built an apartment building, with business space on the ground floor and 20 apartments above it and no one would have been able to object.
When the hearing concluded, well after midnight, Rolf Van Nuys, owner of Bramblebush Farm Ltd. on the Sumas Prairie summed up the evening by saying that he had heard a lot of fear mongering and was confused by the opponents of the proposal, most of whom prefaced their remarks with an outpouring of respect and admiration for ACS and its ability to manage such facilities, only to finish their remarks by saying they didn’t want the ACS to be allowed to do their work in downtown Abbotsford.
“Where did the idea come from that 20 men, living in a well-run facility, by a respected organization on a small piece of property is going to somehow destroy downtown Abbotsford?”
In the end the overwhelming conclusion of anyone watching the evening progress was summed up by the sea of green scarves, sported by well over half of the audience in attendance who support the proposal.
Just how much influence the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce and the ADBA have with individual councillors will be tested as the issue is expected to go to a vote at the next council meeting.
Edited 11:15 2/4/2014