The smoke has cleared at the B.C. Court of Appeal, with the City of Vancouver emerging victorious over some residents in the Marpole neighbourhood who oppose a temporary housing project for homeless people.
There is a lesson here for the opponents: Litigation can’t remove homeless people from residential streets, and it can’t bring back the 1950s’ neighbourhood dream. Once primarily contained to the Downtown Eastside, homelessness is an issue that stretches to the outer reaches of Metro Vancouver.
Still, it would be difficult for the city to call this a complete win. It’s a relationship fail when embittered residents drag the city into court, and the fallout from hard feelings within the group, which filed the court action under the name Caring Citizens of Vancouver Society, has touched everyone, including the people this project is intended to help.
When the 78 units of temporary modular housing opened on a vacant lot across the street from Sir Wilfrid Laurier Elementary School, a handful of homeless people turned down move-in offers, saying they felt unwelcome in Marpole and feared for their safety, CBC reported. Concerns expressed by the would-be residents sounded oddly similar to those of the protesters who said they feared for the safety of local school children.
While some residents delivered care packages for their new neighbours, a caring deficit was displayed by the most vehement opponents, specifically those who erected protest signs at the project as residents began to move in. That level of mean-spiritedness is indicative of people whose attitudes toward the project will never change, regardless of the city’s best outreach efforts.
But the callous few certainly don’t represent all Marpole residents, or even the majority of opponents. So, it’s fair to question whether a more robust consultation process would have drawn more opponents onside.
Tenny Chui, one of the group members, believes so. From the beginning, he says, the city seemed unwilling to consult or exchange information with the residents, he says. Many people claimed they didn’t receive notices announcing the project and were shut out of open houses because the rooms were too small.
The city insists it did everything it could to communicate with community. Abi Bond, Vancouver’s affordable housing director, says officials listened very carefully, citing four “dialogue sessions” and a “community conversation,” and they formed a community advisory committee to address any problems.
The city, however, refused to consider moving the project, pointing out the site was available on offer and homeless people already lived there. Given the opponents’ motto was “right idea, wrong location,” there was scant room for negotiation.
Quality public engagement requires giving people an authentic opportunity to change the outcome, says Robin Prest, program director of Civic Engage at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue. But he adds that sometimes an outcome is non-negotiable as cities balance human rights issues with community concerns. If delaying the project to search for an alternate site would have meant more time in the cold for homeless people, he says, “that’s pretty harsh.”
Chui, a kindly sounding man who delivers food and blankets to the homeless in the Downtown Eastside and at St. Augustine’s Church in Marpole, feels his group got a bad rap. And now that the project is open, there are glimmers of hope. Chui dropped by to meet some of the residents and concluded they “seem like very nice people.” He now believes it is possible things will work out.
Chui, like many others in his group, is not heartless. He’s mourning the lost neighbourhood of his childhood, “when nobody locked their doors and bikes and toys could be left outside.” He understands it’s not coming back, but it’s hard to stop the longing.