A good place to be homeless?

Abbotsford Mennonites react, respond to ‘lightning rod’ issue of homelessness

March 26, 2014 | God at work in the World | Number 7
Story and Photo by Amy Dueckman, B.C. Correspondent

Homelessness in the city of Abbotsford has made headlines in recent months. There was the dumping of chicken manure by city crew members on a homeless camp, a months-long protest campout at centrally located Jubilee Park, the rejection by city council of a rezoning proposal to build accommodation for homeless men, and a community rally at city hall to protest that decision and show support for the homeless.

In the midst of these events, local Mennonites have expressed various opinions on how to deal with the issues and Mennonite organizations are on the forefront of many of the activities.

Several years ago, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) B.C. was instrumental in the formation of Abbotsford’s Cyrus Centre, a shelter for at-risk street youth, and MCC personnel are now asking, “How can we be part of the solution?” says program director Ron Van Wyk.

He says MCC B.C. has been involved since 2004 in counting and interviewing the homeless population of Abbotsford and other cities in the Fraser Valley. Van Wyk believes a triage-type system is needed for evaluating the needs of those on the street through contact and relationships.

Following the city’s injunction to force a homeless camp out of the public Jubilee Park, a tent city has arisen across the street from where the new MCC Centre building is being built. The building will house the MCC B.C. headquarters, a thrift shop and warehouse beginning this fall. Van Wyk points out that the continuing presence of homeless people so close to the MCC building could pose a challenge to those in the building, but would also provide an opportunity to help those in need directly.

Mennonite congregations are also doing their part. For the past several winters, Emmanuel Mennonite Church has opened its doors to a cold weather shelter, taking in overnight guests who cannot be accommodated at the Salvation Army, says Pastor April Yamasaki. Church members and other volunteers staff the shelter, lending a listening ear to the guests, giving them a hot breakfast in the morning and sending them off with a bag lunch.

Pastor Karen Heidebrecht Thiessen of Level Ground Mennonite Church reports that her congregation is involved with helping the disadvantaged in the city in various ways, including Bible studies at recovery houses and support groups for people dealing with addictions and potential homelessness.

“We have many people in our congregation who have lived on the streets,” she says. “We are located next door to the George Schmidt Centre, which is a facility for men at risk of homelessness, and we worship and interact with these men on a continuous basis.”

Drawing headlines in recent weeks was the decision by Abbotsford city council to reject a proposal by Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) to rezone a small plot of land nearby to permit construction of a 20-suite housing unit for homeless men and those at risk of homelessness. Downtown business owners near the proposed site had raised concerns about the proposal, saying it would have a negative effect on their business.

In turn, concerned citizens, including many local Mennonites, braved snowy weather to stage a rally near city hall the following week to protest council’s decision and ask for reconsideration of the proposal. Councillor Henry Braun, who had voted for the rezoning, cited his own Parguayan Mennonite refugee family background and said he knew what it meant to be without a home. “This is not the end and we will not give up,” he told the crowd in an impassioned speech.

 Speeches by several other people and numerous signatures on a poster in support of the homeless were part of the event. ACS director Rod Santiago told Canadian Mennonite, “This is life-giving to see the community say that what happens to our homeless is important to them, to come and make a statement.”

Mennonite councillors take opposite sides on zoning debate

Two Mennonites on city council voted on opposite sides of the rezoning issue. Dave Loewen, a member of Level Ground Mennonite Church, voted in favour, while Les Barkman, a member of Northview Community Church (Mennonite Brethren), voted against.

Loewen says he doesn’t think Abbotsford is unique when it comes to homelessness, but that the city has become a “lightning rod” for the issue. He believes activism shown by local Christians and others on behalf of the homeless speaks to the character of the community.

“I spoke with a long-time street worker about Abbotsford’s attraction to the homeless,” Loewen says. “He told me that individuals from the B.C. Interior and Alberta have been attracted to Abbotsford because of all the available services. It’s a good place to be homeless! That, I think, is a testimony to the community stakeholders who have been faithfully working with the homeless for many years, in many instances the faith community.”

Barkman says his vote against the proposal does not mean a vote against the homeless of the city. He says he has volunteered his time at Emmanuel’s cold-weather shelter and has visited homeless shelters in a number of Lower Mainland communities, as well as the notorious Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver.

“Council was unanimous on the need for a homelessness solution,” Barkman said, “but if you look at the whole area [downtown residences and businesses], is that what Abbotsford needs?” Barkman says he believes that the placement of the proposed residence was not the right one, as putting such a facility away from the problematic downtown core would be more beneficial. He cites the example of the recent move of the Warm Zone facility for street-entrenched women out of the downtown area, with positive results.

The decision to pour chicken manure on an area inhabited by the homeless last summer was regrettable on the city’s part, Barkman says, but he stated clearly that council was not informed about this beforehand and did not approve of it afterwards.

 Barkman thinks one-on-one relationship-building would be one effective solution to help those on the street, many of whom have substance abuse problems or mental health issues. “I think we have an opportunity,” he says. Men’s ministries could do their part. Why not go out and spend two hours once a week on the street?”

Homelessness is “a complex issue,” Barkman concludes. “There’s no silver bullet out there.”

News flash

ABBOTSFORD, B.C.—On March 20, 2014, Abbotsford City Council struck a Task Force on Homelessness to address multiple issues surrounding homelessness in the city.  Mayor Bruce Banman said, “We need to examine not only the conditions and responses to homelessness that exist in Abbotsford today, but address the steps we need to take to meet the requirements in our community going forward.” The task force includes Ron Van Wyk of MCC B.C. The task force will begin meeting in April.

--Posted March 26, 2014

See also: ‘Everyone deserves a home'

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