By Mike Archer. Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun has faced two crises on the issue of homelessness in the two months he has served as mayor. He has reacted appropriately, decicively and with lightning speed in both circumstances.
In the case of the fire at the Drug War Survivors’ (DWS) protest camp New Year ’s Eve, both he and City Manager George Murray were on site first thing in the morning and stayed around to supervise the City’s response to the crisis.
In this week’s destruction of a homeless man’s camp in Ravine Park, Braun immediately called a press conference and promised to change the training of staff, and, in particular, volunteer staff, in dealing with the homeless and the marginalized.
This week’s incident, and the mayor’s response to it, have revealed some very substantial challenges faced by the City, the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) and our service providers in their treatment of marginalized people.
The APD has virtually disappeared from public view when it comes to the homeless in Abbotsford and, while this may have been a smart response to the extremely bad PR their former strategy was receiving, it is hardly a solution to their relationship with the homeless.
A little more cerebral, strategic and long-term approach is needed.
Some may be shocked to find out that many of our service providers, such as Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) have adopted the approach best exemplified by the phrase, ‘You appear to have used drugs recently. I cannot talk to you.’
Because of this blatantly prejudicial, unscientific and possibly illegal policy, staff at our service providers will have to be retrained as well.
Mayor Braun’s approach to homelessness seems to be made up of a combination of quick responses to crises and a great deal of behind-the-scenes work to try to extricate the City from its many law suits with its homeless population.
While the proof of his and staff’s behind-the-scenes efforts to get out of the law suits will only be demonstrated in the pudding, his crisis management and his determination to resolve the issue are a welcome departure from the combative, cowboy stances too often taken by the previous mayor and the business associations who supported him.
However; without retraining, from top to bottom, both at the City and at the APD, we are simply going to be left with a new and improved PR response to the issue of homelessness but very little in the way of solutions to the problems.
If staff at the City, the APD or at any of our many government and privately-funded service providers aren’t properly trained, we will keep reliving this nightmare over and over again. And Mayor Braun will simply be trotting out the same quick response apology every couple of months when some other poorly-trained service provider, cop or City employee acts out by mistreating a homeless person.
It’s the abuse of homeless people which has to stop … not just the ill-informed response from the top brass at the City and the APD.
The City is taking several steps in the right direction:
1) Homeless Coordinator – though I have disagreed with council’s decision to hire a homeless coordinator, and still have my concerns, the City is going ahead with the plan and, by all accounts, is determined to make it work. I seem to be in a minority on this issue and, at this point, I prefer to support the chosen candidate and hope they can achieve some unity, both in purpose and direction in the crowded world of organizations which are paid to solve homelessness.
So far it has been like herding cats but, with skill and clear direction from council, good things may yet come of the decision.
I hear an announcement is imminent and look forward to learning what their search for a good candidate has turned up.
2) Homeless Committee – Councillor Dave Loewen is the chair of council’s committee on homelessness which, with a reduced number of committees signals a raised profile for the issue and sends a strong signal that council is serious about resolving past issues.
Loewen has always had a personal and emotional attachment to the homelessness issue and has consistently stood on the right side of some pretty nasty decisions taken by his fellow councillors over the years. He is certainly the councillor who is most likely to provide the right kind of leadership and move this issue forward.
3) Court Cases – The inept manner in which the City of Abbotsford has somehow managed to turn itself from a plaintiff into a defendant will perhaps go down in Canadian legal history as one of the most hilarious, ham-fisted and just plain dumb moves made by a municipal government in any court.
While cities like Vancouver have been smart enough to restrict themselves to using court orders and injunctions to enforce their homeless bylaws, Abbotsford has managed to get itself embroiled in a series of law suits and human rights complaints that are not only set to make constitutional history but which have over 140 Canadian municipalities watching.
The City of Abbotsford’s belligerent and combative stance towards its marginalized citizens has made us into the poster child for how a city should not deal with its citizens.
If city officials can grasp the enormity of the mess in which they find themselves, they may be able to negotiate their way out. If not; they risk having the courts decide just exactly how they will have to respond to and fix the situation created by Abbotsford’s politicians and business leaders.
More Than Words Needed
While all of the signals from Braun and the City’s top managers has been very positive, the people on the ground always seem like they are the last to get the memo. If Braun is going to be able to convince voters, taxpayers and citizens that he is accomplishing something on the homelessness front, word is going to have to get to those at the bottom of the totem pole that we have a new way of dealing with marginalized people and that the rules about what was and wasn’t OK, established by previous councillors and mayors, will no longer be tolerated.
Braun seems to be finding out the hard way that abuse of the homeless has been ingrained in the fabric of City Hall in Abbotsford just as it has been at the APD and some of the service providers. It is going to take more than words to change the way people on the front lines deal with the marginalized.Barry Shantz, founder of the Abbotsford Chapter of the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors (DWS) – the organization representing Abbotsford’s homeless population in the many court cases and human rights cases the City faces – says that the legacy of Abbotsford’s Anti-Harm Reduction Bylaw is still being felt by the men and women who were targeted.
“This recent act by a Parks and Rec volunteer is a symptom of the hate and discrimination which was exacerbated by the Anti Harm Reduction bylaw. The hate and discrimination were already there. The bylaw made it legal in the minds of people at organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), such as theMCC’s community representative Ron van Wyk, has participated in and promoted some of the City’s ugly agenda,” says Shantz.
He may have a point.
Proper Training Is Key
Whether dictated by the courts or decided upon by current or new leadership, one way or another, the City, the APD and our service providers are going to need to re-train their staff, from the top down, in how to deal with citizens who suffer from mental illness, alcohol dependence, drug addiction, poverty or homelessness.
Without being too much of a smart ass – we have collected and published some useful information for the APD on how it can train its staff to deal legally, properly, and effectively with the marginalized in Part 4 of our Between A Rock And A Hard Place series on homelessness, drug addiction and the APD – What The Experts Say – which they are most welcome to use …
It is time for us to grow up as a community and decide that the people who work for and represent us need and deserve the proper training in order to do their jobs properly.
In some cases it may prove to be a large, costly and even difficult undertaking. But if we want to move beyond merely dealing with the bad PR we’ve received, and start to solve this issue, more than a simple ceasefire is required.
We need to bite the bullet and bring our city into the 21st Century.