By Elsie K. Neufeld. He is sitting on a bench at the corner of George Ferguson Way, at the edge of Historic Downtown Abbotsford. A sign says it to be so. He is gazing south-east, in the direction of Hazel Street, a vacant lot now, a property that, rumor had it, was considered an alternate site on which to build the BC Housing-funded low barrier apartment for 20 homeless, or at risk-for-homelessness, men. BC Housing was going to fund the cost of building that apartment ($2 million dollars, plus a bit), and Abbotsford Community Services applied to City of Abbotsford to rezone the lot next to its offices on which the apartment was to be built. BC Housing had committed to funding the operational costs for the next 60 years ($15 million dollars). Twenty men could live in that apartment for two years, during which time, they’d be supported in ways that might lead to their becoming independent again. Some, but not all of the residents, would still be active in their addictions, many of those with concurrent mental illness. Help would be given to those who were willing to work on recovery, and support be given 24/7 by ACS staff and an on-site worker. The main floor of the apartment would include a suite for that caregiver, as well as offices for support services. Ironically, had that suite not been part of the design, there would have been no need to rezone the property, and the apartment would have been under construction as this facebook post is being worded.
But that’s hindsight now. Or isn’t it? Rumor has it that the civic election this fall will — for the first time ever — include the “issue” of homelessness. Some say it will be a determining factor in who is voted in as Abbotsford’s next mayor and city councillors. There are 8 councillor positions. The mayor voted unwaveringly against the rezoning, prefacing his vote with a well-prepared, passionately expressed speech in which he said that “the process of application was flawed from the start….” He also stated that in the interest of the small mom and pop businesses in downtown abbotsford, who felt at risk should a low barrier housing facility be constructed in such close proximity to their businesses, thereby attracting more homeless persons into the area, and discouraging locals to shop in their stores for fear of what might befall them should they stroll and shop in historic downtown abbotsford, he couln’t possibly vote in favor of the rezoning. The mayor’s was the last vote that evening. Four councillors had voted yes, with impassioned pleas to the councillors who had already voted no to reconsider. After all, 15 million dollars was a lot of money to turn down, and evidence was provided of how a low barrier housing actually improved neighbourhoods in places like New Westminster, Nanaimo, and in Vancouver’s high-end Dunbar area. In fact, those housing units house 40 men, not 20.
There was a window of hope as the yes-voters spoke — every one of them well-prepared, eloquent, and, as said, pleading with the opposition. There was hope, because what they said made good sense.
But then the mayor decided to vote no (though he had the option to abstain from voting, which would have been an automatic assent, and the motion would have passed), and to preface his opposition vote with a speech that, to put it diplomatically, had no spine.
Politics being politics, the vote was about power, not about the homeless. That became clear in the aftermath of it all, most blatantly so at a subsequent council meeting at which Councillor Braun proposed the vote be revisited, and Councillor Ross seconded it. The mayor nixed any discussion, called for a vote, and the same hands that voted yes weeks earlier, voted yes, and, the same hands that voted no, voted no again.
It seemed to this observer, a political nadir of sorts for the city of Abbotsford. And one election issue — homelessness — was ignited. Not a wee candle flame. A roaring fire.
“We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing,” said a number of individuals who have been front-line service providers and companions to the homeless. And thank God for those citizens of Abbotsford.
Soon after that vote against revisiting the denied motion, the mayor announced the formation of a 13 person task force. A 14th person was added. A week later, the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association made front-page news as they, too, have started an association to help the homeless. Their raft is populated with numerous homeless persons, and a starting budget of $10,000 that downtown business owners have donated and hope others will donate money to.
It’s hard, it’s very very hard not to be cynical about these two front-page headliner committees.
But this facebook post isn’t about those committees.
This post is a story about a man who was sitting on a bench a meter or two away from a lovely brick-and-mortar sign at the north-east entrance to Historic Downtown Abbotsford.
His name is Tim.
“Have you lived in Abbotsford a long time?”
“Came at the start of the month. I was sharing an apartment with my brother in Vancouver, but we weren’t getting along, so I moved out.”
“Where are you living now?”
He pauses before he answers. Something sad in the air crosses from him to you. He gestures down the road. And you know, before he says “Salvation Army.”
“How long can you stay there?”
“And then what?”
“I dunno. I’d like to cross the border, but it takes two buses to get there.”
“The Sumas border?”
“Are you from the US?”
“No, I was born in Manitoba.”
“Yeah. Cree and Ojibway.”
“So, why don’t you go back there instead of to the US.”
“If I went back to the reserve, I’d have to sell drugs. There’s a guy there who runs the place. Everyone’s expected to give him money. I’m not an addict. Never done meth or heroin. I don’t want to be around that stuff.”
“Have you ever been homeless?”
“In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?”
“No. In Seattle. I lived under a bridge.”
“For how long.”
“About three months.”
“What was that like for you?”
Another pause. “Empty. That’s what it’s like. You’re a nobody. And in Washington, the state doesn’t care about you if you’re homeless. If you’re crazy, they’ll put you away. If you’re blind, they’ll look after you. But if you’re homeless, you have to prove you need assistance.”
“Have you ever worked?”
“Yeah. Labor jobs mostly. I worked for Labor Unlimited in Vancouver.”
You sit on the bench beside him, not knowing what to ask next. His word “empty” wasn’t just a word. It was like he exhaled what that felt like.
“Do you have friends in Abbotsford?”
“Not really. Just ones I’m making at the Sally Anne. I actually came to abbotsford to see my niece. She lives here with her daughter and her baby. She was holding 40.00 for me that a guy I sold a crossbow to, bought off me. it cost 225, but I sold it to him for 100. He’d paid me the 60, asked if it was ok to pay him the 40 later. I said sure. He’ll probably use it to hunt for elk. Do you know anything about crossbows?” he asks.
You don’t, and he tells you. He knows a lot, even though he’s never hunted. From crossbow talk, he tells you about his family, that he is alone, is single, has always been single. comes from a blended family. “My brother died on September 15.”
He stops talking. Looks away.
“Diabetes. His kidneys. He’d been on dialysis. My sister had it too.”
“No. I’ve been tested. We had different fathers. I guess they got it from him.”
He tells you more stuff about his family, about his brother who died, how he went to sweat lodges…
He has a gentle tone, one without malice or bitterness. Resignation of a kind to life as it is.
You realize, listening to him, that he would be a perfect candidate for a housing unit such as ACS had proposed. You tell him about it, and ask, “So, what do you think? Would that be the kind of place you might want to live in?”
“For sure,” he says. And you can see from all he’s said, that it would be a perfect match. There he would have his own space. People to talk to. An address. Advisement and assistance. Support.
While you’re sitting there chatting, a scruffy, bearded guy appears. Sits on the other bench. He nods at Tim. “Do you know each other?” you ask.
“Yes. From the Sally Ann.”
“I just moved out,” says the man named Frank. “It’s much better now. I got a place of my own….”
To be continued with a photo of Frank, and his story.
Posted On Voices For Dignity