Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities -- The Homeless Question in Abbotsford and Kitchener

What do Abbotsford, British Columbia, and Kitchener, Ontario, have in common? Well, they have both made the news recently in stories regarding the civic treatment of the homeless and urban poor.

Issues of homelessness and social dislocation are notoriously complex, stemming as they do from a myriad of causes. These include job loss, financial reversal and bankruptcy, impoverishment of seniors, transient and itinerant workers, sudden or chronic disabilities, mental illness, and addiction to name just some. While Canadians tend to celebrate their social safety net (the checks and balances of a compassionate society), thousands of people invariably fall through the cracks. Often thought of (erroneously) as a big city problem, smaller communities are also increasingly encountering the issues that homelessness and economic dislocation present.

In Abbotsford, this issue has pitted the charitable volunteers from the Peace Lutheran Church against City Hall. Once a week, the Peace Lutheran Church holds a modest breakfast of "Cheerios and coffee" for the homeless in Jubilee Park, located just off the crossroads of the "five corners" intersection. According to the Church's pastor, Christoph Reiners, the volunteers serve about 20 people per event. As John Millican notes in the Abbotsford News:

Church staff have already attended a meeting with business, community group, city hall and council representatives in which they were asked to stop what they are doing.

The church, however, has ignored these requests and was again at the park, which is located on McCallum Road close to Pauline Street, on Thursday.

As for Pastor Reiners, he thinks opponents are over-reacting:

“I think Abbotsford is experiencing some growing pains. It used to be an idyllic rural community but we are a big city now with big-city problems and we are not going to address them by moving them (homeless people) from park to park,” he said.

“Showing some people care and respect, who are judged by all of us, goes a long way to helping them. These problems are not going to be solved by not serving a breakfast once a week.

“The social issues run much deeper and, unless we deal with them, we are just going to keep moving people around.”

Echo Abbotsford a few thousand kilometers away in Kitchener, Ontario.

In Kitchener, another group feeding the homeless, this time directly on the grounds of City Hall, has been told to relocate or stop. Only, in this instance it wasn't a church but a social advocacy group called Food Not Bombs. Substitute a social/political charity agenda for a liturgical Christian charity agenda, and the events are otherwise oddly coincidental. As described in the Waterloo Region Record:

For nine years, Food Not Bombs has performed a vital community service by feeding the poor each Saturday at City Hall. For nine years, this collection of committed social activists has eased the hunger and isolation of some of the most disadvantaged and marginalized members of this community. And for nine years, Food Not Bombs has helped the city deal with the formidable and seemingly insoluble challenge of poverty.

Regrettably, after all this time and doing all this good, Food Not Bombs stands accused of being part of the downtown problem -- not its solution. A number of downtown business people say that the weekly food giveaway in a very visible area near King Street is frequently disruptive, drives away customers and should be moved.

In both of these instances, for Abbotsford as for Kitchener, it would be too easy to characterize the central issue as compassion vs. heartlessness, or social service vs NIMBYism. The tensions that have been revealed in these stories reflect more fundamental issues in the changing face of suburban communities. Concerns (real or imagined) about drugs and prostitution, the impact on local business, the security of homes, the safety of pedestrian shoppers, etc., all betray a sense of people not wanting their small communities to become like big cities. Abbotsford doesn't want to be like Vancouver; Kitchener doesn't want to be like Toronto. Yet, other compassionate people in both cities would argue that tackling the homeless problem head-on and early is a way of forestalling that development. Growing pains? Perhaps. But, it should be remembered that while both of these communities have experienced significant growth in recent years, neither of these cities could be described properly as "young communities".

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