A call for compassion in Marpole, where housing for homeless is planned
Vancouver's plan for 78 units of temporary modular housing in the south Vancouver neighbourhood has stirred up emotions.
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Andrew Halladay has an invitation for residents of Marpole who are terrified that a temporary building to house the homeless will endanger their children:
“I feel frustrated, but I also feel like I would want to invite and welcome everyone to come to the church and meet the people we’re talking about,” said Halladay, a priest at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church. The church runs a meal program that is open to everyone in the community — including local homeless people.
“Please come and listen to them. They’ll listen to you — they’d love to have a conversation.”
The quiet South Vancouver neighbourhood, which is a mix of single family homes and low-rise apartment buildings, has been rocked by an outpouring of emotion on both sides of a debate around the city’s decision to put a 78-unit modular housing building at 59th Avenue and Heather Street. The site is located across from Sir Wilfred Laurier Elementary school and a block away from Churchill Secondary, and will be open by January.
On Nov. 6, around 200 people gathered near the site to protest the plan. They carried signs saying “kid’s safety matters” and “no homeless housing” with drawings of syringes. Grafitti on a nearby street sign reads “junkies not here.”
Mayor Gregor Robertson said he was “concerned about the vicious comments, the stigma that’s being put on people that are homeless,” a remark that stung some of the residents who are opposed to the project.
Meena Wong, a former mayoral candidate and a mental health worker with Vancouver Coastal Health, said the city could have handled the community consultation better, especially considering the fact that many in the diverse community are recent immigrants.
“You have to understand, in the country or community they came from, homeless people means either mental illness, or people are no-gooders, or they have been cast out of their supportive network — their family, their friends,” Wong said, noting that community information sessions have been held in relatively small venues, leaving many frustrated residents outside.
“And then you add the drug addiction, and these people have never met anyone dealing with that issue.”
(City communications staff said smaller venues have been chosen “to allow for a productive dialogue.”)
“It’s about educating, not shaming,” agreed Andy Yan, an urban planner and director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.
“They’re not going into these communities, getting staffers to talk (residents) through the process.”
Wong and Yan have been doing interviews to Chinese-language media in an attempt to do some of this education. But Yan believes the city needs to follow a more grassroots strategy when rolling out initiatives like this: for instance, hold community meetings before press conferences (contrary to what was done in this case) — “teach before you sell,” he said.
Anna Cooper, a staff lawyer with Pivot Legal, agrees more work needs to be done to educate the public about the needs of homeless people, and to counter rampant misinformation, such as the perception that homeless people are violent or that all have addictions. But, she, warned, “we can’t wait for discrimination to end before we take care of our most vulnerable,” especially as winter approaches.
“Is there suddenly a massive uptick in needles everywhere, anytime a low-income housing project gets put into a community? That’s just not true,” she said. “There’s no credible evidence that putting in this housing near a school is going to lead to direct harm to children.”
Back at the church, Halladay and a member of the congregation are having a conversation about people they know who would benefit from the new housing: a woman about to lose her housing; a man who is currently couch surfing; another man who might be able to finally tackle his addiction if he had stable housing.
“These aren’t new people coming to the neighbourhood, they’re people who have been living here all along,” Halladay said. “If you haven’t noticed that, now’s the time to start noticing.”