By Mike Archer. I attended the public meeting last Thursday, hosted by the City of Abbotsford for the Abbotsford Dignitarian Society’d (ADS) proposal to build a Dignity Village style camp for the homeless down on Valley Road.
I was there in a couple of capacities, neither of them as a representative of Today Media. I am a member of the Abbotsford Dignitarian Society, and I was also there as a concerned citizen. Shaheen Shivji was covering the event for Today Media so I was there to observe and to help if I could.
There were two things I noticed.
Firstly; the turnout was good. Over 100 people showed up and asked intelligent questions; provoked some useful discussions and, whether they were for or against the project left more educated and impressed with the work which has gone into the Valley Road proposal than they were before attending the public meeting.
Secondly; the people about whom the entire discussion was about, the members of the homeless community, were sitting off to the side, huddled against the gymnasium wall, far away from the proceedings.
This is in no way the fault of the ADS as they were prisoners of the process provided by the City. When asked after the event about the fact the homeless seemed left out of the evening, Jeff Gruban, of the ADS, volunteered that, had he been notified or seen the situation develop he would gladly have moved his presentation over to them.
Unlike the Mayor’s Task Force On Homelessness, the ADS actually has a significant number of homeless men and women on its board of directors. I’m one of them and I just sat there like a lump on a log taking the whole evening in.
I don’t think anybody deliberately left anybody out but it gave me some insight into just how far apart the human beings who run the City of Abbotsford are from the homeless citizens they like to discuss as though they were just another political problem to be fixed with a bylaw or two.
I can hear the very reasonable explanations now – public meetings have a standard protocol and, if you were to alter them for each proposal you would be accused of preferring one proposal over another. The City simply used its normal formula for such meetings and didn’t deliberately try to leave anyone out.
And maybe that is the point. The whole purpose of this meeting was to evaluate a proposal to help the homeless. The fact that the average homeless person does not feel welcome in such an environment should be terribly important to those who are trying to do something for them. Maybe there’s something wrong with the process.
And yet … there they were. Barry Shantz, the head of the Abbotsford Chapter of the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors (DWS) attempted to create a circle of chairs in the middle of the floor and invited Paul MacLeod and Gerry Palmer of the ADS to address the homeless, specifically about the disappearance of the portable toilet from the DWS protest site on Gladys Avenue, to no avail.
In fairness, Shantz’s request may have appeared a little out of order since the evening was organized specifically as a public meeting on the Valley Road proposal but no one, including me, picked up on the fact that the men and women who were being discussed were not part of the process until most of them had wandered away.
And yet I’ve learned how much it took for each of them to walk all the way over the the meeting like dutiful soldiers aware that they had to show the community that they give a damn about the decisions made about them.
That being said; Mayor Banman, who, to my knowledge, has made no effort to meet or introduce himself to the homeless men and women of Abbotsford except during televised and well-documented mass evacuations at the Sally Ann, was at the meeting and might have taken the bull by the horns, intervened and addressed the elephant in the room.
He could have noticed that his public meeting was not addressing the most important people in the room.
The simple fact is that the people whom everyone is now tripping over each other to be seen to be helping are not your average, white, middle class property owners, developers or concerned citizens who usually show up to public functions.
That may have something to do with the fact that all of the people talking on their behalf, about their futures, and deciding on the fates seem to know so little about them. They are like lepers in the settings which the City provides for discussion over their lives.
Maybe, if there were any courage at the council table, arranging for a council meeting to be held down at the TeePee, so that the homeless could participate in discussions about themselves, would go a long way towards bringing those at the top and those at the bottom of Abbotsford society together.
Not knowing the men and women about whom you are passing hateful, discriminatory and illegal bylaws does tend to make it a lot easier to crush their human rights. Knowing them on a first name basis makes it much more difficult to do so.
Maybe that’s why developers are seldom treated the way homeless people are …