This past week has seen local social media in a tizzy over the announcement by BC Housing that they are going to create a facility for the homeless on the site of the old Grand Forks Hotel.
It appears the two main issues getting most discussion are: Why there? and Who (locally) brought them here?
Let’s address those right now.
First – the site is located downtown where most of the homeless are located. I know a lot of people would apparently rather see it somewhere else. A site out of sight. Some have even suggested Broad Acres which is kilometers out of town in the bottom of the valley. Which might sound good to those who don’t want them around at all but won’t work because they would never get out there on their own and wouldn’t want to stay out there because there’s nothing there beyond the facility. So putting it out there would be fruitless . . . something I think even those suggesting that know.
Nope – if you’re going to serve a population, especially one with limited mobility like the homeless, then your services need to be located where they are. And that’s downtown.
Second – the old GF Hotel site is large enough for a facility housing multiple units. We don’t have one or two homeless people, we had over a dozen before the flood . . . expect more to crop up because of the flood.
Third – it was up for sale. And zoned correctly for this purpose.
But why there? Right in our faces? Right at the gateway to the city where the tourists will see it?
Last item first – the tourists.
If the homeless were an aberration that very few places had then actually having some would put our town in a subset of places that were different. Poorer. Embarrassingly so. And wanting to hide that from the visitors might make sense. But they aren’t rare – almost every city has them. Even the town that is the home of the royal family of England, our ‘head of state’, has homeless sleeping rough on the street.
Even if the facility wasn’t there the homeless will still hangout in public spaces like Gyro Park which is right next to the highway and across from where the Timmies will be located. And I don’t think we could pass a bylaw, and enforceable one, that would prevent them from hanging out in public spaces.
There’s another reason I like and it has to do with human psychology.
What do City Hall, homeless service locations and cat litter boxes have in common? Simple human psychology.
You get a cat.
Never having had a cat before you place the litter box somewhere out of view where you don’t have to see it all the time.
But eventually you can smell it and find it’s become a stinking mess because out of sight is out of mind for most people. The trick is to put it in or near well traveled areas so it’s never out of sight. That way you can’t ignore it and are less likely to let it get to the point of being a stinking mess.
We elect a group of individuals (via a popularity contest) to sit on city council. Then we assume they will do what they said so we turn our backs on them and pay them no attention . . . until somebody points out to us that they are doing something we don’t want – that council has become a mess we should do something about.
By ignoring them and denying them the feedback they need it’s easy for them to wander down some avenue of change the citizens are unaware of and might not like. Not paying attention until it’s impossible to ignore we are caught unawares and unpleasantly surprised when they do something objectionable. Like the universal water meters which had been in the works for well over a decade and talked about for at least two years before locals rose up in arms against it.
Similarly non-profit run facilities like Whispers and BETHs left to struggle to operate without attention being paid to them by city hall and the citizenry is a recipe for a stinking mess. They were in a city owned building but did the city establish an ongoing model of interaction so that they and their ‘tennant’ could have a mutually supportive relationship? No – the city pretty much ignored them until everyone wanted them gone and then they conducted inspection visits where they conveniently found enough code violations and other problems that they could say it had to be torn down.
What other landlord lets it get that far down the road to ruin?
Simple human psychology leads us to spend time setting them up and then turning our backs on them. And ignoring them until they become a stinking mess that offends us. And then we’re all emotional and looking for simple solutions to problems we’ve created for ourselves.
Much questioning and finger pointing has gone on to try and figure out what local group was involved. BC Housing isn’t saying. City Hall is saying no one consulted us – BC housing only came and asked us what the zoning for that property was.
Why would BC Housing do that? Not include local government in the project?
Let’s look at the recent history of city council and BC Housing and the homeless here in Grand Forks.
Last year the homeless issue came to a boil. The camps along the river bank near Whispers of Hope had become a regular scab on social media that we just could not stop picking. Homeless people were setting camp fires in the bush to keep warm at a time where the whole province was in a state of emergency due to wildfires. And that freaked people out.
So the very upset citizens got on city council’s case and city council struck a task force to explore the problems and find solutions. But then in a Jekyll / Hyde moment the city decided to evict Whispers from their property also. Before the task force had even gotten underway.
When you’re looking in from the outside it’s pretty clear how the city deals with homeless people. Not nicely.
A while later we saw the residents of Brycen Place come down to city hall to plead with city council to do something to stop the project happening right in their backyard. A Women’s Transition house being constructed by BC Housing. Not for homeless people but for women transitioning out of their previous living situations to self sufficiency.
Even though the residents weren’t going to be homeless the neighbours still didn’t want them there. No In My Back Yard please. They were reasonable in there arguments with city council for the most part.
But City Council couldn’t help them because it was a private sale to an entity, BC Housing, that council could not evict, cajole, order or control. And the zoning was the only thing council had any say over.
I swear I cold almost see a hint of smile and hear a sigh of relief with some councilors as they sat back and said it’s not under our control – we cannot help you.
Later when BC Housing came to council to ask for some financial relief for things like inspection fees council said no, we want you to pay for everything. There’s no help, no financial relief here for you.
Recently when Whispers asked for a location for their mobile food cooking and serving trailer they were given the cold shoulder in council. No room at the inn for you guys because of the druggies you serve is the take away message sent.
Put yourself in the place of BC Housing.
You plan on doing something in Grand Forks to help the homeless situation. You are looking at Grand Forks and you see the way council bends to the will of the loudest and angriest nimbys in the town. That council will go so far as to literally destroy its own property to spite the efforts of those delivering the help the homeless need.
Why would you put consider allowing them to have any influence over your project?
Look at the angry voices on social media. There’s even talk of a petition to stop this project in its tracks. As if the angry part of the town wants to have total say in how to deliver support to the homeless which they don’t want here in the first place.
Would you allow them into the meeting room to ‘help’ you figure out how to help the homeless?
Finally let’s address the question of who is to blame for bringing them here.
Depsite all the investigation and questioning and finger pointing nobody has been identified. No one person or group has stood up and said it’s me. It’s us.
Well if you really need to blame someone then blame me.
Really, blame me.
I asked. No I’m not kidding. I really did reach out to BC Housing in July a year ago.
On July 17 in a long discussion in the Committee Of The Whole on these topics, especially the homeless setting campfires during the state of emergency, I sat at the back of the room (where I always am) and got an idea. And that led me to get out my phone, look up BC Housing’s website, find the contact page and send them an email which I will reproduce below.
Essentially I was asking for help. I was asking for them to allow the winter weather shelter to be opened during smoke / wildfire emergencies so the homeless could have place to shelter at night and not burn the whole town down.
I cannot say for sure that the real reason they are doing this new project is down to my email but I’m willing to stand up and say blame me. I’m not running for council so I couldn’t care a bit if I lose votes over this . . .
I do care that the homeless do not fall through the cracks so far that our town resorts to inhuman acts to rid itself of its most vulnerable.
Not all the homeless are crazy people. Not all the homeless are ‘thieving drug monkeys’ as some call them. They are homeless.
If you’re one of those who bitch and complain about them and are worried this new facility will become a stinking mess and eye sore then you have choices. You could go down and make city council’s life miserable but that won’t help because it’s out of their control. You could go on social media and complain there but that’s just going to enflame arguments and make the rest of us ignore your angry bleating. you could stand across the street and protest and make angry faces at them but that’s just going to make the tourists see just what kind of small minded town this can be.
Or you could go over to the facility and say something like: I’m concerned this will become a sinking messy blot on my town’s downtown. Is there any way I can help you keep it from turning into that?
Here is that email.
I am local media in Grand Forks. I am sitting in a City Council meeting where the topic of homeless people camping in the nearby bush are creating a possible fire hazard in this time of increased likelihood of wildfire. The province is in a state of emergency but no one appears to be able to resolve this problem. Fire department can only put out fires and ticket but these people have no address or ability to pay. RCMP do not arrest anyone because a lot of this comes down to mental health issues.
Aside from the potential for our town burning to the ground there is also the potential for vigilante violence against these people.
Part of the provincial efforts to deal with homelessness has to do with extreme weather shelters. But these are intended for winter only as far as I understand things.
I would strongly suggest that extreme wildfire situations such as we have right now should also be considered as worthy of opening these facilities.
I’m directing this email to this address because I don’t know which email address might be the correct one. In the hope that someone at your end might get this to the proper office’s attention because this is an emerging emergency situation and I am confident our community is not alone in facing this.
Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.
And I’ve heard at least one councilor say that city council knew nothing of this BC Housing project. Maybe that’s true but this email was CCed to the Mayor.