The last of three public forums was held on the Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) Supportive Housing Proposal at the University of the Fraser Valley Friday evening. Hosted by the Department of Criminology and the Abbotsford Christian Leaders Network (ACLN) the forum was well-attended with over 180 people packing the lecture hall.
After being welcomed by Pastor Christoph Reiners from the ACLN, the audience listened to newly-minted MLA and UFV criminologist Darryl Plecas give a half-hour speech outlining the vast amounts of money his government has spent on homelessness and stating his five reasons for supporting the BC Housing, ACS and City of Abbotsford initiative to build a low barrier building to house 20 homeless or at-risk men.
In order to succeed, Plecas said, such a facility would need to provide:
- A ‘Smorgasbord’ of services such as addictions and mental health
- Timeliness and proximity of help and assistance
- Intensiveness in its treatment and commitment
- Sensitivity to the often disparate forms of success
- Connectivity with residents and the community
“This project has all of those which is why I believe in it,” he said in a campaign-style speech, adding, “I am very proud of our government, Please do not be afraid of having one of these in your neighbourhood,” he said.
He then finished by threatening the community with a complete loss of funding for such a project if they turned it down.
“If we say no, this ain’t coming back for a long time,” he said. Plecas finished by describing the challenge facing the community as “An exercise in pencil sharpening.”
Jim Burkinshaw spoke on behalf of the ACLN and, one-by-one dismantled and dismissed the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association’s (ADBA) initial reasons for opposing the project as outlined in their petition released last June. He told the audience he had been to New Westminster and spoke to businesses and residents who told him the low-barrier housing project there had in fact benefited the community and local businesses rather than harming them.
Burkinshaw then dismissed the ADBA’s objection to the zoning promise made by the City in founding the ADBA C7 zone (precluding the establishment of Supportive Housing Projects among other things) as something that was agreed upon to “Protect against our fears at the time,” adding that, now that we know more, the businesses of the ADBA do not need the protection offered by the C7 zoning.
Janna Dieleman, speaking on behalf of the ACS described the ADBA’s concerns as myths and accused them of a “rush to judgement.”
Dieleman quoted from former ADBA president Dale Klippenstein’s letter of support for the project as he described his and the ADBA’s objections to the last major project brought into the area to help the homeless and those suffering from mental illness – “The facility on McDougall Avenue was eventually passed by the City and built soon after, and it has never been a problem for the property owners or merchants in the ADBA. It exists, it’s doing fine work and there are no issues with its clientele. That is because it does not affect the downtown in a negative way. As the president of the ADBA at the time, I was ignorant of mental health issues and I regret participating in creating an obstacle to the very important work that happens at this facility.”
Paul MacLeod, president, and Tina Stewart, Executive Director of the ADBA both rose to address the audience and argued that, far from opposing help to the homeless the ADBA is doing more than its share by having 12 public assistance organizations devoted to the poor and the homeless within their four square kilometre area.
Furthermore, they argued, the C7 zoning is not the simple re-zoning issue the ACS is trying to make it out to be.
“This is a piece of land that was specifically zoned in such a way as to preclude exactly this type of project,” said Macleod. He stressed the businesses of downtown Abbotsford, many of which he said were ‘Ma and Pa’ operations that have been built by business owners mortgaging their homes and working six or seven days a week in order to survive.
Stewart told the audience, “We pay the highest taxes in Abbotsford. We are saturated with assistance organizations and and we are more than doing our part. Enough is enough.”
A resident of a successful Supportive Housing Project in Chilliwack spoke to the audience about the role safe and clean housing played in bringing him back from a life of drug and alcohol dependence after he became homeless after losing his job, his house and his family.
“Recovery is hopeless without a home, he said.
The presentations were followed by a brief session of questions read by to the panelists by moderator John Sutherland who chose them from among a selection of hand-written notes collected from the audience at the end of the forum.
While the UFV classroom seemed amply prepared to be able to handle modern communications devises like microphones (one of which was used by panelists) it appeared to be beyond the capabilities of either the school or the organizers to take the one microphone which was available away from the panelists and let audience members use it.
Nor, apparently, were organizers prepared to allow simple verbal communication between the audience and the panelists.
The project now awaits a decision by City Council which must decide whether or not to approve the request for rezoning made by the ACS and BC Housing after three to five years worth of behind-the-scenes-planning and discussion with City officials.
“Why wasn’t any of this public discussion held three years ago?” asked one audience member leaving the forum.