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We all want to solve homelessness – just not in our backyard

Everyone agrees we need to do something about homelessness – as long as we're not impacted or inconvenienced in the process.

The fact is, many of us are hypocrites when it comes to this problem. We earnestly shake our heads in anger and despair when we read about the growing number of people sleeping in alleyways and under bridges, of a mother living in a tent in the woods. But how many of us are prepared to do something to help make a difference?

Solve homelessness? Sure. Just somewhere where I don't have to see it.

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That, to a large measure, is the essence of a debate raging in Vancouver. And believe me, it's just getting started. The city wants to put 78 units of temporary modular housing in Marpole, a residential neighbourhood in the south part of the city, on an empty plot of land owned by a developer. Each home will be 250 square feet and come with a bathroom and a kitchen. Residents will have access to on-site, around-the-clock health and support services.

This has made some who would be living in the vicinity irate. There have been protests, with residents suggesting children in the neighbourhood would be at risk. "Right idea! Wrong location!" (One woman suggested the would-be tenants be housed in Stanley Park instead). "Kids' Safety First" some of their signs read. At least no one had the gall to wave a placard that read: "What about our property values?" Because for many, that is the real issue.

I recognize this is not an easy, straightforward matter. I accept, also, that there are likely many people reading this who would not be thrilled with a prospect of a social housing development, temporary or otherwise, being erected on their street. Admittedly, I might not be jumping up and down with joy, faced with the same situation. But then we also have to ask ourselves, what kind of society are we trying to build here?

Is the solution, as many would suggest, to build this housing in unpopulated industrial sites? Create homeless ghettos, carved off from the rest of us so we don't have to be reminded of the plight of our fellow man? Nearly everything that has ever been written about this subject, by every academic and social worker who has spent a lifetime pondering this predicament, says that integrating the homeless (in supportive housing) into the greater community gives them the best hope of turning their lives around.

Treating them like lepers and colonizing them in some brownfield site is the worst thing we can do. And yet, that's precisely the option many would prefer. I hope we never succumb to that type of dangerous, narrow-minded thinking.

And this is not just a Vancouver problem. It is a Toronto problem. It is a Montreal problem. It is a Calgary problem. It is a big city problem.

It's all our problem.

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The views of people living in Vancouver are just beginning to get tested. The city needs to find eight to 14 other sites for the 520 additional units of social housing that the provincial government has promised and supplied funding towards. Some of the projects have already been earmarked for higher-end neighbourhoods. Over the next 10 years, the city has promised to add 12,000 additional units of supportive and social housing, many of them to accommodate the homeless. Again, it is this type of environment that offers people on the street the best chance to re-establish themselves as fully-functioning citizens.

This is the same housing that everyone applauded when it was an idea on a whiteboard, when it was a campaign pledge on an election trail. We'll see how much support the same people have for the idea when plans reveal it's coming to a neighbourhood near them.

As far as Marpole goes, a decision will soon have to be made about the housing that the city wants to put up in the south Vancouver neighbourhood. The winter monsoons have arrived early on the West Coast. There could soon be snow and frigid temperatures, conditions that make life on the street perilous.

I hope the city of Vancouver sticks to its guns and builds the housing quickly. To do otherwise would be to give in to illegitimate fears and the worst kind of NIMBYism. The decision says so much about the kind of country we want to be.

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