fear and belonging - homelessness in Abbotsford

Photo courtesy of the Abbotsford News
This week I participated in an important public meeting in my community. I've mentioned it before, but Abbotsford is decided on whether or not to approve the zoning of part of our downtown core for a supportive housing project based on a housing-first model. The public hearing started at 7pm and the last speaker left the podium at 1am. To say the issue got the community's attention (and participation) is a huge understatement! Unfortunately, the issue has been quite polarazing, filled with unhelpful rhetoric from all angles, making consensus and collaboration far from a reality. A decision will be made on February 17.

There were two main issues I noticed and felt like I needed to address to our city's leaders. First, a common response to such projects is fear. Fear for business. Fear for families and neighbourhoods. Fear, quite plainly, of "them" (this wasn't the case for all the opposition, but for many it was). Here's what I urged council to consider regarding the fears:

Much of the opposition I’ve heard is based on fears, both economic and social. We can’t ignore the presence of these fear, lest we’re naive. Yet we also can’t let ourselves make decisions based on fears. As no doubt we’ve all experienced personally, fear can be crippling. The greatest progress, personally and socially, is in addressing and overcoming fear, not merely accepting it. I urge us as a community, and you as leaders, to decide on this project based on courage in the face of fear.

Additionally, many of the fears around homelessness and addiction are based on stereotypes that just aren’t true. For example, a genuine fear is that homeless and addicted people are a direct danger to our businesses and families. That statement creates fear. But is it true? Since moving back to Abbotsford last year, myself and my 5-year-old son have met several “dangerous” people here in Abbotsford, building relationships and sharing stories about life in this community As a family, there are times when we’ve received more focused attention and care in these “dangerous” situations than when we’re visiting many of the “safe” places we spend time as family. As a parent, I’ve had fears about projects like this. But when I’ve faced my fear, I’ve found relationship and openness. I’m not afraid of this supportive housing project because when I’ve felt fear, I’ve only experienced belonging and relationship. There are cases in Abbotsford (George Schmidt Center and Christine Lamb Center) as well many other places in the Lower Mainland where the common fears are never realized. 

And the other dynamic at play is a broader issue of how we function as communities and who in fact we consider is worthy of belonging through our many structures, be those economic, social, or otherwise. I urged our mayor and council to make a decision that reflected belonging, not exclusion:

Homelessness, addiction, and crime are most often symptoms of exclusion, personally and socially. If we continue to exclude the most vulnerable people in our community, we only perpetuate the symptoms of their exclusion. Belonging and community is hard work, no doubt. But like anyone who has experienced the joys of honest friendship, belonging and vulnerability trumps fear every time.

As city leaders, I implore you, legislate belonging by approving this project. As citizens, let’s support belonging by facing our fears and overcoming them in support of this project. After all, we don’t just live in Abbotsford, we belong here.

I'm hoping our community, despite differing opinions, can rally around a shared compassion and make the courageous decision for belonging.


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