Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The problem is doing nothing about the problem
May 31, 2008

I have no particular stake in what Richard LeBlanc is trying to accomplish on Woodwynn Farm, other than a broad interest in anything that aims to tackle the problems on our streets. I don’t know how big a dent his project will make on the most obvious challenges facing the downtown.
But word last week that a citizens’ group had formed to try to buy the farm before he does was still some of the most discouraging news I’d heard in a while. That people would rally to raise more than $6 million just to stop a guy from trying to do a good thing - well, that’s just such a sad statement of where we’re at in this region.
What’s to be done in a community where the biggest problem is an inability to address the problem?
At least we’re no longer debating whether we have social problems. We’ve even reached some consensus on the work that needs to be done: housing (and more housing), outreach, better mental health care, accessible and integrated services, job opportunities, reconnection to community.
Ah, but where will we build those services? That’s the issue that’s stopping us dead right now. We talk a good game about wanting problems solved, but only if it all takes place in someone else’s neighbourhood.
An acronym has already been coined, of course: YITBY, for “Yes, in Their Backyard.”
The group opposing LeBlanc’s project offers a timely example. Farm Trust chair Barbara Souther, a long-time neighbour of Woodwynn Farm, mentioned in media coverage this week that she’s all in favour of helping the homeless, but thinks an empty school a few kilometres away would be a much better location. I wonder what neighbours of the school would say about that.
Similarly, tensions are said to be running high within the Downtown Residents Association between those who live near the now-defunct needle exchange on Cormorant Street - which is permanently closed as of tomorrow - and those who live in the neighbourhoods where the new mobile exchange will operate.
One neighbourhood wins, another loses. Whoever mounts the loudest campaign wins the right to dump the problem into somebody else’s lap for a while, at least until that group can mount their own campaign to push it elsewhere.
But isn’t the challenge, then, to strive for one of those “win-win” solutions we like to talk about? We need to get past the surface hostilities and figure out what it would take for a neighbourhood to feel comfortable enough to say “yes” for a change.
There are many ways to make an unpalatable idea more palatable. Resistant B.C. communities quickly changed their tune about hosting provincial casinos, for example, after they were given a cut of the profits.
What’s the carrot we could use to appease neighbourhoods asked to host projects tackling street issues? Would a tax break help? More community amenities? What are people actually afraid of, and what could be done to convince them that their concerns will be addressed?
I’m anticipating several angry e-mails in response to this column along the line of, “Oh, yeah? Well, how would you like a bunch of homeless people living next door to you? Let’s see if you’re so damn supportive once they’re breaking into YOUR house.”
If that’s how things played out, then yes, I’d be unhappy. But as we know from any number of potentially controversial services operating below the radar in their particular neighbourhoods - detox, halfway houses, women’s shelters, recovery houses - a well-run and properly resourced service doesn’t draw problems.
It’s understandable why people fear the worst, mind you. The reason things blew up on Cormorant Street wasn’t because a needle exchange was located there, but because it could no longer cope with changing client demographics and a caseload that had tripled since 2002 with no corresponding rise in funding. We taught people to expect a mess should the needle exchange ever come to their neighbourhood, and the challenge in that case is to be absolutely sure we do it right the next time round.
The situation is different in the case of LeBlanc’s farm. His opponents are anticipating problems that I doubt will even materialize. Therapeutic communities like the one he’s proposing hinge on a careful selection process to ensure a good fit with people ready for change. Neighbours need not fear the arrival of busloads of struggling, addicted people plucked fresh from the streets (nor will LeBlanc’s proposal fix all our problems downtown).
We need new ways of resolving an old problem - not homelessness, but our community’s inability to act. Until then, we’re just putting a whole lot of energy into standing still.

1 comment:

robertrandall said...

I've lost hope. Hell, the residents of North Saanich won't even let the local rec centre build a waterslide for disabled kids.

I don't think we're asking Saanich residents to make any extraordinary sacrifice. We would only like to see them do their fair share in solving the homeless/drug problem. Where do they think these people come from? Do Saanich residents believe all street people were born Downtown, or moved here from Calgary?!