Sunday, June 21, 2009

Angry Rich People

Beware of angry, rich people.

It's something that most politicians are acutely conscience of. Just as the Cambie line transit planners who'd been originally considering sending Vancouver's latest skytrain line along the old BC Hydro train tracks through Kits, Kerrisdale and South Vancouver. The potential noise and property depreciation helped galvanize the city's west side against the project eventually leading to the decision to burrow (sort of) under Cambie Street.

We all can still remember the nightmare that created for commuters, shop owners, and residents.

Now a new group of condo owners in Vancouver's trendy Yaletown district are rallying against the city's HEAT shelters placed in their neighbourhood. Created in the winter to save homeless lives from the harsh winter cold, the shelters have since become a hub of community and the first line of support for the city's most desperate citizens.

Recently, Global News did a story outlining the Beach Avenue condo owners' concerns.

In short, neighbours are frustrated with a variety of issues stemming from the HEAT shelters including: semi-public sex in a nearby park, needles left lying around, new criminal elements, open drug use, and according to some people, the intimidation of residents by some shelter clients.

They also claim there was no consultation and the city simply decided there was a need and opened the doors without heads up to residents.

They're right. But there's a reason behind this quick unilateral action. In order to deal with the emergency situation precipitated by the freezing cold and record snowfall in the city, Mayor Robertson and his HEAT team had to move quickly, pushing the shelters through without the usual consultative process. Nobody wanted the tragic case of "Tracy" (a homeless woman who was burnt alive trying to keep herself warm) to be repeated.

Nobody is saying this isn't a tough situations for the residents of Beach Ave. What I take exception to is many residents' insinuation that the area is a closed community and they have no interest in figuring out how to live with neighbours who don't own, nor rent, but who simply survive. Community and neighbourhoods aren't confined to those who own a condo - we're all part of community.

On the Drive, we live right above a pharmacy that issues methadone, a recovery shelter, a bunch of low-income housing and a group of young homeless kids who make the garage next to us their home. Sure they're loud sometimes. Sure sometimes it pisses us off. But we do not disavow their right to be there and we deal with it.

For Yaletown's newest shelter residents, there needs to be a greater conscience that they are new to the neighbourhood and need to do their best to minimize their disruption and clean up after themselves. It sounds like the HEAT shelter staff are already rallying clients to do just this.

For the people of Yaletown, it's going to be trickier and take some bigger sacrifices. Treating their new neighbours with a little more leniency and respect would be a great start. The homeless tend to be pretty adaptable to new environments. Rich folks, on the other hand, tend to be decidedly less adaptable.

Desperate people have to go somewhere and a solution is not to ghettoize the Downtown Eastside to keep them out of sight from the cafe late crowd. As Councillor Kerry Jang has said, City Hall is committed to closing the shelters down, but only after homelessness in the area has been solved and everyone has a warm, safe place to sleep at night. Until then Vancouver's communities (both affluent and not) need to extend a hand to help, not a slap in the face, to the more desperate of us.

Do the residents of Yaletown really feel so strongly about the exclusive nature of their neighbourhood that they're willing to toss people back on the street and call the cops to sweep them away? I hope not. Because if they do, they'll probably discover pretty quickly that much of the street disorder (which according to BIAs has dramatically decreased over the last few months) will be back with a vengeance.


Chris said...

This kind of stuff is endemic in Vancouver politics. A lot of Vancouverites seem to see the role of government as providing them with a country club-like atmosphere, rather than providing justice and protection for the people.

Kurt Heinrich said...

Yeah, I agree Chris. Definitely pretty frustrating that people seem readily accept "out of sight is out of mind" so readily.

John Horn said...

Is it really "outta sight, outta mind"? I mean, the real problem here is the way that residents are dealing with an in-sight problem. They see it and they know about it because homelessness and drug abuse and prostitution are staples of every major city. And they're unfortunately prominent in Vancouver. So, people know about it.

The lack of connection between people with problems in shelters and their place in the community is a huge issue. Or maybe just with people who are different from the majority's view in a neighbourhood. For example, when I wear a suit on Commercial Drive (where I live; my community) I am occasionally called a "douchebag." Stephanie Mango, who has been interviewed on CBC and has contentiously called the visitors of Grandview Park "riff-raff" and "rough around the edges" has been threatened by people on The Drive. But she'd fit in just fine in Yale Town.

Whatever the case, dismissing people as "in search of a country club" or seeking to put issues "out of sight, out of mind" is just as bad as what they're doing. Because it's raising our beliefs above theirs and not engaging in any kind of meaningful dialogue.

When I get called a douchebag for wearing a suit, I ask said-caller-of-the-douchebag why he made such a comment. When well-spoken shelter-goers approach the Yale Town community with a thoughtful rebuttle to a NIMBY-argument, well, that's the first step of a meaningful discussion.

But that's just one douchebag's opinion...