In all of the noise around Vancouver's plan to build 78 modular housing units in Marpole, a calm voice of reason has emerged. It is that of a polite, well-spoken and community-minded Grade 12 student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School – exactly the sort of person those opposed to the development insist needs to be protected from the threat of homeless people no longer being homeless.
Rather than further marginalize homeless people, 16-year-old Ishmam Bhuiyan thinks the neighbourhood ought to welcome them, and help them integrate into the community.
Some background: On Oct. 26, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson officially announced that Marpole would be home to Vancouver's second modular housing project, with 78 units spread over two buildings at 59th Avenue and Heather Street. The site is across the street from Sir Wilfrid Laurier Elementary School, and not far from Churchill Secondary in a neighbourhood made up largely of single-family homes.
It is true that the announcement was made with little or no consultation with neighbours. The city is moving quickly to find locations since the province announced in September that it would spend $66-million on 600 modular housing units in the city.
But I doubt any amount of consultation could have satisfied those opposed to the plan, or achieved any kind of consensus since they apparently see homelessness and criminality as one and the same.
It's also true that the situation is urgent. The last regional homeless count showed that, over the past 12 years, the number of homeless people has risen by roughly 800. Of the 2,138 homeless people counted in the city this spring, 537 of them were living on the street.
So, while opponents who insist they are not NIMBYists took to the streets carrying signs that read, "Right Idea – Wrong Location," and organized on Facebook, Ishmam Bhuiyan and about 20 other students formed their own group – Marpole Students for Modular Housing. They too have a Facebook campaign that last time I checked, had 10 times the number of likes of the Marpole Students Against Modular Housing page. Not that it matters.
What does matter is that, as one side spreads fear, posts pictures of people plucking needles out of parks in the Downtown East Side, and news stories about a child pricked by a needle in Coquitlam, the other side is arguing calmly, rationally and with compassion that building housing for homeless people in the neighbourhood is better than not housing them.
To paraphrase a recent Twitter post: "Don't like homeless people in your neighbourhood? Provide them with homes. Problem solved."
Ishmam Bhuiyan couldn't agree more. "People aren't well educated about who's actually coming in. We're seeing priority given to people over the age of 45, people who are living in the community, people who have disabilities – and regardless of that we have this wonderful opportunity to welcome people and to make our community a better and more inclusive place," he said in an interview.
Mr. Bhuiyan likely has more experience interacting with homeless people than most of his peers. He runs a volunteer organization called Kitchen with a Mission that brings food and meals to homeless shelters. "These aren't people to marginalize – they're people to welcome and integrate into our community," he said.
Among the various and ever-shifting concerns that opponents of the project have raised is the claim that Marpole doesn't have the services to support would-be residents of the modular housing.
Mr. Bhuiyan said it's a valid point but that the community should be working to provide those services. "Instead of spreading hate and fear what we need to do is take that next step and say these are the problems we need to address."
As for what's driving the opposition, he suspects it is primarily fear of change in the neighbourhood. "I think to tackle that we need to educate – educate adults online and educate children within Laurier and Churchill schools," he said.
Mr. Bhuiyan said his worst fear is that students in either school will be afraid of the people who move in across the street. "I know that they shouldn't be afraid because I spend hours a week with these people. They're not people to be afraid of."
Here's hoping that just some of the acceptance, generosity, compassion and logic of a 16-year-old high-school student rubs off.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.