By Mike Archer. One of the things you learn when you get to know some of the individual men and women who live on the streets in Abbotsford is that they are individual human beings each with their own story … not a social problem.
Another thing you learn is that, ever since the Chicken Manure Incident, and the ensuing condemnation and ridicule from around the world, their relations with the some of the members of the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) and some of the City employees, who have now gotten to know them as citizens instead of knowing them only as some vague social problem, have changed.
There was a fascinating moment, 8 days after James Breckenridge and Abbotsford Today revealed the assault with chicken feces to the world, when the Abbotsford News decided they had better say something about the issue and ran an editorial saying that the whole thing was just the fault of some misguided low level City staffer.
Of course, emails later revealed the full extent of just how many people knew about the assault – just about everybody with a desk or a locker at City Hall – but The News has, to this day, not told its readers who led it to believe a junior staffer had been responsible.
Abbotsford City workers, it seems, bear the brunt of a lot of the criticism this community levels at the City when it is actually the senior managers and the politicians who ought to be taking responsibility for their decisions.
For the 200 – 300* homeless people in Abbotsfoprd, on a human level, the police have not been harassing them like they used to, and some of the City staff, who were tasked with helping the Drug War Survivors (DWS) protesters who lost their belongings in the Christmas Eve evictions from Jubilee Park, have begun to build actual human relationships with some of the protesters.
Talking with the ‘unhousable’ members of the homeless community there is a palpable relaxation ever since the Standoff in Jubilee, which ended so embarrassingly for the City – with spotlights, uniformed cops, fences and barricades all captured on the Vancouver TV news.
It’s almost as if, having demonstrated what hard asses they could be, the City and the cops realized that the optics of having well-fed, well-paid police officers and civil servants getting tough with defenceless men and women who suffer from mental illness, alcohol dependence and drug addiction are not the kind of optics which help you keep your job if you’re up for re-election or if you serve at the pleasure of council or of a police chief who has lots of awards for his police chiefiness.
While the power structure and the mayor have shown absolutely no sign that they realize they are losing this fight, the men and women who must enforce the cruel stupidity of the Abbotsford Shuffle, the overnight camping bylaw or whatever other trumped up excuse for abuse the City has made up over the last decade, are beginning to show signs of tiring of the constant stress of abusing their fellow human beings.
Because, no matter what anyone tells you, it is stressful handing out that much hate on a daily basis.
It reminds me of a personal moment I experienced when Calvin, and the members of the DWS who now live at the MCC Dignity Village Teepee on Gladys Ave, had just moved in. Like many of their fellow citizens, I drop by when I can with some wood, clean water or other supplies and, the day after Christmas, after the Teepee was raised and they were settling in, I was just getting ready to leave when a police car pulled up.
It was an inspector from the APD.
What struck me was the pained look on his face as he slowly exited his car and began explaining to Calvin that the Teepee was on municipal land and that they would probably be asked to move again. (True to form the City of Abbotsford got an eviction notice for January 2nd for the MCC Dignity Village site as well – an eviction notice they have yet to act upon).
The inspector came over and, when he found out who I was, began a conversation with me about how unfortunate the situation, by which I took him to mean the Abbotsford Homeless Crisis, was, and how difficult it was proving to solve.
I told him I thought it would be easy to solve if there were the political will to do so. After all, I said, without asking his friends and neighbours, former Mayor George Peary had signed a deal which, with a stroke of a pen, had committed them to paying millions every year to the Calgary Flames and Global Spectrum in order to manage an empty arena.
The same mayor, with the support of many on council, rescued the rich golfers of the Ledgeview Golf Course and Country Club when it turned out they couldn’t keep track of all the moeny they had and were faced with going broke.
Surely, I argued, something could be done to help the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the City.
“And then you guys wouldn’t be taking all the flack you do for enforcing their stupid bylaws and inhumane policies,” I told him.
He was quiet for a moment before telling me he thought there is the political will …
And then his voice sort of trailed off and he finished by using the mayor’s favourite excuse for inaction. “But it’s complicated,” he said.
As more and more of the beat cops and civil servants who, for the first time in a decade of handing out abuse and neglect, are getting to know Calvin, and Harvey, and Dale, and Nick, and Faye and …
There are so many more to get to know.
And one by one they are discovering how hard it is to abuse someone when you know who they are.
How many homeless?
*The number of homeless people in Abbotsford at any one time is a matter of some debate with the sanitized number of 117 being most quoted by those who want to downplay the issue, a more realistic number according to several of the service providers who work day and night on the streets is between 200 and 300.
Official estimates (like the 117 number) often quoted by city councillors and those with a vested interest in having as few homeless people as possible are tainted by the manner in which the counting was done. Abbotsford Police Department officers went around with the counters sticking their noses into homeless camps and attempting to use the procedure as a way of gaining intelligence.
Many of the homeless men and women in the camps refused to participate in the study due to the police involvement.
In Abbotsford this is what passes for ‘factual’ research.
The Mayor’s Version
Mayor Banman, on the other hand, seems to think everything was resolved when he sent the cops in on the Standoff in Jubilee on Christmas Eve:
*“We have sent two children — two young youth, rather — back home to Calgary. A couple of people went into rehab, is my understanding, and a couple of the ladies found some help through the Elizabeth Fry Society, is my understanding. The city is working with the support groups that we have to try and find beds for people, one person at a time. Of the 12 homeless that were found in the protest camp, there were many protesters that had beds. Of the 12 that were actually homeless we did manage to find warm beds for nine of the 12, three refused,” said Banman.
Hard at Work T’was the Day Before Christmas
Abbotsford City workers removing the personal property of individuals living in Jubilee Park “with care”. Video courtesy of Alesha Gillett.
(Some of) The Faces Of Abbotsford’s Homeless