Street Fight: Is the latest plan to address Abbotsford’s homeless crisis destined to fail?

Longtime Abbotsford homeless resident Roy, left, shows Rod Santiago, Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) executive director, some tools he's collected. Roy's camp is in the corner of the parking lot where ACS is hoping to build a 20-unit low barrier shelter for men, which is faces strong opposition from the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association. Photo: Rochelle Baker.

Pastor Ward Draper lights up a cigarette and peers at the eight-foot-high chain-link fence that surrounds Abbotsford’s Jubilee Park.

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“It’s overkill. It’s way over the top,” he remarks.

Behind the steel barrier sits a locked shipping container, which holds items belonging to the residents of a homeless protest camp. City council evicted them just before Christmas.

To Draper, a pastor of 5 and 2 Ministries who’s tended Abbotsford’s street population for a decade, the barricade to keep homeless people out of the park is indicative of how the city typically deals with its most vulnerable residents -- divide them and hide them.

“We have a real problem with the homeless in this community, especially drug addicted males,” Draper says.

Still, he says, Abbotsford’s approach to handling the issue—using bylaws as a tool to push homeless people out—is not much different than most local governments.

Other tactics, however, have raised eyebrows. Abbotsford garnered national attention last summer, after city workers dumped truckloads of chicken manure at a homeless camp as a means to drive residents from the site.

Allegations also surfaced that city police officers slashed and pepper-sprayed tents and other belongings at other camps. The police have replaced some residents’ belongings. A number of lawsuits in small claims court backed by Pivot, a legal advocacy society, are still in progress.

Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman and the city manager publicly apologized for the manure incident. But since then, council has continued to use bylaws and court injunctions to displace homeless camps, citing health and safety concerns.

For Draper, continuing to legislate the homeless out—or as he put it, “continuing to kick them around like soccer balls”—is untenable.

Now, the issue has reached a boiling point, in the form of a “low barrier” supportive housing project. The first of its kind in Abbotsford for men struggling with drugs or addictions, it has divided the city. 

While proponents like Draper describe it as a critical step in the long-term solution to homelessness in Abbotsford, opponents, particularly the local business association, argue the location isn’t suitable.

Meanwhile, proponents worry that the province, which has committed an overall total of $15 million to the project, is becoming increasingly frustrated at Abbotsford’s inaction on the homelessness file. 

On Jan. 13, council pushed the housing project to a public hearing, scheduled for Monday, Feb. 3. It’s not clear how long after that council will ponder its fate.

A housing first approach

According to the 2011 Fraser Valley Regional Homeless Count, there are an estimated 117 homeless people in living on the streets in Abbotsford. 

Proposed by Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) and BC Housing, the project would begin to address the need for more housing by providing shelter for 20 homeless men, and operate as a “housing first” facility, meaning residents would get a roof over their heads regardless of addictions to drugs or alcohol.

It would be located next to ACS’s main office, so residents can access services designed to help them transition to permanent housing.

The Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) staunchly opposes the initiative. Its members argue the project will drive up crime, threaten public safety and bankrupt merchants in the downtown core. It has collected more than 2,000 signatures opposing the project.

Executive director Tina Stewart says ADBA doesn’t want any changes made to current downtown zoning bylaws, which don’t permit emergency shelters or supportive recovery uses. 

A special “C7” zoning was a 20-year agreement put in place to protect merchants and develop the formerly derelict downtown core, Stewart says.

“The City made a promise to us 12 years ago, and because of that business owners felt secure in investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the area,” she says. “If the City goes ahead with [the ACS proposal], they are basically reneging on their side of deal. 

Merchants are already leaving the core because of the housing project and others won’t invest until they know it won’t proceed, she says.

Rod Santiago, executive director of ACS, says the supportive housing shouldn’t be seen as problem but rather a way to create a “healthy, inclusive downtown core.”

The housing will provide Abbotsford’s most marginalized residents with the security, safety and dignity they need to address problems such as addiction or mental illness, he says.

Abbotsford homeless resident Roy, who says the city has been chasing him place to place for years, is camped out in the parking lot where Abbotsford Community Services hopes to build a 20-unit low barrier shelter for men. Photo: Rochelle Baker.

The proposal has received the backing of the Abbotsford Christian Leaders Network Executive. Fifty-two church leaders have signed a letter of support, and the organization is encouraging residents and congregants to turn out in force to support the project. 

Provincial funding at risk

BC Housing has committed $2.4 million in capital and $215,000 annually over 60 years for operating costs, while ACS is donating the land valued at $250,000.

Beyond changing its zoning laws, the City would have to contribute a section of Montvue Avenue to the project. But Abbotsford stands to lose much more if council rejects it.

Not only would it lose millions in government funding, but some proponents, such as Draper, believe the City will squander any political capital it has with the province for future projects.

In fact, Abbotsford already rejected a similar men’s housing facility in 2009. The money BC Housing is now fronting for the ACS project is left over from a five-year-old memorandum of understanding between the province and the City to build 100 units of social housing.

In the document, the City agreed to provide land for two projects, one of which became a model for supportive housing: the Christine Lamb Residence on Clearbrook Road that provides 41 units of supportive housing for at-risk women and children. But council shelved a men’s housing project slated for Emerson Street in central Abbotsford after it faced virulent public opposition at information meetings in October 2008.

Following that, council directed staff to work with BC Housing to explore alternative site options for the men’s project. The eventual result was the George Schmidt Centre on King Road in the outskirts of the city that opened in April 2013.

The centre provides 30 units of supportive housing for men, but it’s not a low barrier residence, which means it wouldn't help those living on Abbotsford's streets today. What’s more, Kinghaven Treatment Centre, the residence’s operator, donated the land for the project.

'There is only so much money to go around'

Abbotsford South MLA Darryl Plecas, whose riding includes the ACS facility, denies the province would stop working with Abbotsford if it rejected the project. But the City would go to the back of a long line for funding for future housing plans, he says. 

“I’m confident that if the money isn’t used [for the ACS project], it will go elsewhere,” says Plecas. “There is no shortage of communities fired up to establish similar projects. They are waiting in the wings... there is only so money to go around.”

Plecas, a criminologist, says he’s respectful of the business association’s crime concerns, but doesn’t share them.

Similar housing projects in Chilliwack and New Westminster are examples of the model “working spectacularly well,” he says, adding that such facilities only pose risks to a community if they aren’t well-managed.

ACS is one of the largest service providers in Abbotsford. It’s operated for 44 years and runs 80 programs, including the Abbotsford Food Bank, the City’s extreme weather initiative and multiple family and immigrant programs.

'Somebody’s going to be very unhappy'

While voting on Jan. 13 to push the project to a public hearing, some councillors expressed concerns about the ACS proposal. Coun. John Smith said he had “a lot of problems” with the application.

Council is tampering with the C7 zoning promise it made to ADBA, he added. “It’s a dangerous precedent for this council to set,” he said.

Mayor Banman has also said he has “many concerns” with the proposal, but added it was important to push it to a public hearing so the public has its say. Banman did not respond to requests for an interview.

Coun. Henry Braun, on the other hand, believes it’s dangerous for council to reject what amounts to $15 million in provincial funding for the lifespan of a project the City has already committed to. 

“That just seems ludicrous to me,” Braun said last week. “It will be a snowy day in July before we get that funding again.”

BC Housing and ACS have proceeded in good faith and invested time and money into the project, he said. “If we didn’t want this to move forward, we should have said so two years ago.”

The City isn’t spending anything on the proposal other than staff time, he added. “We aren’t even fulfilling the terms of the [memorandum]. We were supposed to supply the land.”

Braun said there’s “enormous tension” as a result of the City’s zoning commitment to the business association.

“It doesn’t matter what we do. The City’s gotten itself into a serious pickle. No matter which way it goes, somebody’s going to be very unhappy.”

Pastor Ward Draper, of 5 and 2 Ministries, outside the chain link fence the city of Abbotsford erected around Jubilee Park to keep the homeless from camping there after obtaining a court injunction to clear the park in December. Photo: Rochelle Baker.

A call for action

The fate of the ACS project now rests in council’s hands, says Santiago. “At the end of the day, it boils down to eight individuals voting.” 

He’s confident if the proposal is approved, ACS can appease the downtown merchants’ concerns and eventually win over their cooperation and support. 

However, Pastor Draper’s not optimistic the council will approve it. “I don’t think they have the courage, but I hope I’m wrong,” he says with a sigh. 

Coun. Braun is eager to hear residents’ opinions at the upcoming public hearing. It’s time the City shows some leadership in dealing with the problem of homelessness, he says.

No proposed site for a supportive housing project in Abbotsford would be free from opposition, he observes.

“And I have a hard time understanding how leaving people in bushes or ditches is better than having people in some kind of shelter,” he says.

“Homelessness has been going on in our community a long time. It’s time to take the bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground, once and for all.” 

*Correction (26/02).: A previous version of this story indicated Ward Draper acted a mediator for police and campers. That is incorrect

Rochelle Baker is a long-time community journalist in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley with a particular interest in human rights and social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter @RochelleBaker1. This article is a collaboration between Megaphone and The Tyee.

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