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Posted: January 13, 2021

Measuring Cranbrook’s greatness

By Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Op-Ed Commentary

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey echoed that thought in November 1977: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Cranbrook is dealing with this very issue. How will we treat some of our most vulnerable citizens? City council is considering an application to rezone a property on 2nd Ave. N to facilitate the development of a year–round shelter for homeless people who are in desperate need.

Originally, a public hearing was planned for January 18. But at the meeting on January 4, council voted four to three to delay this public hearing yet again until they can “get further information from BC Housing and city staff.” At the time of writing, I am not sure when the public hearing will be held.

The issue is not whether Cranbrook needs a homeless shelter or not. “Everyone agrees we need a homeless shelter,” said CAO Mark Fercho. A recent housing needs report identified the lack of a shelter as a serious gap. As Councillor Norma Blissett remarked, Cranbrook is experiencing “a crisis in our need for a homeless shelter; if we don’t act soon, we will be abdicating our responsibility to our citizens.”

The central issue is about the best location for a shelter. Mayor Lee Pratt and Councillors Wes Graham and Ron Popoff are not convinced this property is the best location and want to delay the decision until we find the right place.

But honestly, we will never find the perfect location. People will always find reasons to complain — it’s too close to the high school; it’s too close to the hockey arena; it’s too close to someone’s neighbourhood. The reasons go on and on. This is NIMBY thinking—Not In My Back Yard.

We’ve been talking about Cranbrook’s need for a homeless shelter as long as I’ve lived here. That’s 16 years. There is still no shelter, despite some attempts in the past. It’s time to stop delaying and start acting.

Clearly, this is the right location. Why? There are at least three reasons.

First, the homeless are already congregating in that location. Second, the Community Connections Society is right there, offering services which homeless people need. Thirdly, it is near other agencies such as Street Angels and the East Kootenay Addictions Services Society which provide support for homeless people.

Indeed, Street Angels is located precisely because that’s where the people who need that kind of support gather, including the occasional high school student.

This is the right time to act. The City of Cranbrook Housing Needs Report identifies housing for the homeless as a gap in our infrastructure. Councillor Blissett reminded us that it has reached a crisis stage. Homeless people are once again sleeping outside during the winter, wherever they can find a place.

It is also the right time because a citizen has stepped forward with a building that can be used for such a permanent shelter. All council has to do is rezone the property so that we can move ahead. Previous attempts to build a shelter have all foundered. Now we have a building that only needs some renovations to make it work.

Most importantly, this is the right thing to do. I understand the reasons for NIMBY thinking. I understand that some people are afraid. We always fear people we don’t know, people who are different from us, people who don’t ‘fit in’ with our idea of what it means to live in this place.

But other places in B.C. have met this fear head–on. Parksville on Vancouver Island has posted some moving videos online about the success of Orca Place. As Executive Director Violet Hayes reminds us, “Some people have just fallen on hard times. Perhaps substance misuse put them in a place where they needed some support. It could be anyone’s mother, sister, brother.”

One neighbour talked about “a big fear that there was going to be drug deals done on this property all the time.” Another says, “They were worried about the vandalism that was gonna occur, break–ins, drug deals. It put a lot of fear in people’s minds.”

But once Orca Place was up and running, what happened “was that loitering was down and vandalism was down. It seemed like this area had cleaned itself up.” A local businessperson reflects, “I think our town is better for it being here.”

Jake, who has been accessing mental health supports for over 50 years, has become a resident of Orca Place. He says that moving into Orca Place provides a stability which has transformed his life.

Parksville, along with other cities like Victoria, has learned that we measure a society by how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Medicine Hat is one of the first cities in Canada to commit to ending homelessness by using the “housing first” approach. It offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Imagine that! Ending homelessness by providing housing. Who would have thought?

Medicine Hat has also learned that we measure a society by how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Having a safe, clean place for people to sleep is the first step on the pathway to healing, to self–respect. It’s time to dispel myths about people based on their housing status and time to view housing as a basic human right. Housing is a basic, fundamental human right.

I urge city council to do the right thing. It is time to decide. It is time to act.

How will we measure Cranbrook’s greatness? By how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

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