Just a few months after Mayor Colin Basran strode back into office with a convincing majority win, after a campaign where his approach to homelessness fully embraced the Homes First (before rehab, before employment, etc.) credo, a Kelowna BC Housing initiative which aims to do exactly that is facing mighty vocal resistance from residents neighbouring the proposed site on Agassiz Rd. The opposition is getting quite a bit of attention as it is noisy, organized, and has the ear of conservative media in town (which is to say all private sector mainstream media), as is often the case when boomers with real estate concerns get something in their craw.
NIMBYism is nothing new to Kelowna, however, a glance at the neighbourhood opponents' change.org page reveals a campaign full of falsehoods and fear mongering. It's sad to see campaigns like this where emotion and derision substitute for morality, and fatalism substitutes for pragmatic plans.
On their web page, the opposition starts their mission off by stating “we believe the right place to house high risk individuals, including persons with active addictions is where the risk they pose to others is minimized”. Risk being minimized sounds like a fairly normal impulse right? However, what is not normal is calling someone a “high risk individual”. This language is intentionally shocking and attempts to demonize and rank humanity.
High. Risk. Individuals.
Not “at risk”, or “engaging in risky behaviours”. No, they're labelling the actual person "high risk". At first glance you might think they meant to talk of high risk behaviour, but nope, the part where they say "high risk individuals, including persons with active addictions" reveals their full commitment to attacking the actual person. In terms of humans, I’ve only heard the term high risk for some hard-coded genetic thing, like being high risk for breast cancer. Defining people like this means they cannot change, reduced to bad seeds beyond repair. This is deeply fatalistic and so, so, flawed: first by stigmatizing and dehumanizing them, then by taking the possibility of change away. Doomed people. This is a step onto the slippery slope of fascism that reduces complex, often unfair life shit down to 'individual deviants' determined inferior, and now the only way to fix this is to get rid of it – move it out of town (like a nice ranch maybe, eh Tom Dyas?). NIMBYism against groups of people is dangerous af.
We have all seen how unjust it has been to take someone's ascribed traits and place them into stereotypical norms (hey boomers – remember the 60s?). But dehumanizing those you see as different or a threat to your comfortability as less than normal is Supremacy 101. Taking someone who has come against huge challenges in their social and economic security, or never had any from the get-go, whose low-option situation is likely compounded by addiction or other mental illnesses, and reducing them to subhuman makes it easier to disregard homeless peoples' harsh reality. It's cold and hardening us as a community. And it's worse than garden-variety discrimination because they actually have a plan – get them outta here.
These Agassiz Rd. detractors say they want an evidence-based solution to housing the homeless, that we don’t need a “social experiment” like Agassiz Rd. It is interesting that in their attempts to dehumanize, segregate and ghettoize this vulnerable population, they are in fact engaging in one of the more infamous social experiments of our time. Kelowna’s certainly got more than a touch of the fash in public lately.
Speaking of evidence-based, here’s where the falsehoods and misleading logic kicks in. There may be plenty of evidence that the economic costs of homelessness and substance use on police, health and other public institutions are climbing steadily with little positive results; or that silo-ing issues like housing, addiction, and job training has proven an ineffectual use of resources and so on. There is also plenty of evidence that large-scale, well-meaning housing projects out in the burbs or otherwise segregated from mainstream society, clearly do not work. Forcing people into rehab does not work, ignoring substance abuse and letting addicts fend for themselves until they get arrested or critically hurt does not work, and instead pose massive social collateral damage and institutional expense.
Agassiz Rd. is guided by research. Here’s even more from Interior Health. Plenty of it is available from the City of Kelowna’s and BC Housing's website. But if by evidence-based they mean there’s not a statistically significant number of the exact same type of residence-with-supports (and ‘wet’, or in today's parlance, a harm-reduction facility and an apartment like anywhere else) with proven results (there are some, even in Kelowna), they are either afraid of change, aware that the Homes First approach is pretty new so won't have a record (although there are fruitful trials with over 2000 participants by the federal At Home/Chez Soi project), or have technocratic blinkers on. I mean, we won’t find technocratic, highly quantifiable solutions for qualitative issues that cannot be completely measured by science. Clearly the issues at play are social, psychological, spiritual and more. There's probably some logical fallacy named after this misleading circular questioning. We need a bold move here and relying on the measurable past is inherently conservative and there ain’t much to conserve since many previous (silo-ed, non wholistic) approaches haven’t worked.
The NIMBYs are challenging that they should have a say, or some kind of neighbourhood veto for this. Why they think their neighbourhood is so special that they cannot have supportive housing there, when areas all across the Okanagan and BC have housing-with-support apartments as neighbours is weird, but more to the point this position carries no weight in Canadian society.
Both of our frameworks for fairness, capitalism and Canadian democracy, do not enable us to prevent the Agassiz Rd. development. The social contract we have as Canadians is a balance between individual rights and the common good. And to be sure, our beneficent common goodies: universal health care, infrastructure, accessible quality education, a livable minimum wage, massive investments in research and innovation etc., have given us the platform and tools we need to be competitive and secure as we strive as individuals to be successful (at least that’s the liberal democratic theory). And sometimes we even profit wildly from projects for the common good, like when say, a nice french-language school opens up in your neighbourhood, or a nice big park in your backyard, or neighbourhood planning that prioritizes urban liveliness, green space, security, mobility and sustainability (ergo property values). Other times the projects may not benefit you directly, like say the coast guard, or a supportive housing residence, but we value them for the stability they provide and values we hold as a public.
Capitalism of course doesn’t care about your feelings. The market doesn’t really protect you from wildly veering property values, or neighbours you don’t see as a benefit to the hood – it’s just an aggregate of individual actors. Sure regulation and land-use zoning can come into play ostensibly for the public good, but that of course would mean balancing personal property concerns against a project that benefits Kelowna as a whole – like getting folks off the street to become self-reliant citizens. You do not have a veto as a neighbourhood, likely because it’s proven that institutions like these do nothing to weaken the social fabric or property values of the neighbourhoods they enter. I mean, Cardington Apartments is nothing but a good neighbour in my hood. Instagram lifestylers even take cute shots there.
Lets Do This. Yes In My Back Yard!
When this residence gets completed we will be proud as Kelownians to know that, instead of forcing a solution to make some of us feel "safe", our city chose to explore how at-risk, low-option folks can lead a more productive life, and gave change its best shot. Bringing homeless people security and a feeling of agency is step one. Step two is giving them the tools to change their lot. This is not just a job for BC Housing and the John Howard Society, it’s a job for Kelowna citizens. Devaluing our neighbours will only make homeless and addicted people feel like lesser members of Kelowna.
While morally it's the right thing to do, practical concerns are considered as well. It should also be interesting to see how future changes to wider pressures like the fentanyl drug trade, the jobs economy, and neighbourhood planning, affect the homeless, housing-vulnerable and Agassiz Rd. residents. There will be much to learn from this project, and it will be needed as Kelowna expands as a city. It will eventually give those dataheads some interesting evidence-based examples as communities across Canada start rolling out more and more housing first initiatives.
Some more observations:
- I walk by Cardington Apartments in my neighbourhood regularly at all different hours and have found no issues whatsoever.
- The resident selection process for the Agassiz Rd project considers who will be the best suited to succeed in this environment. Here's the process outline.
- This is a mixed use area (business park, light industrial, restaurants, residential, commercial, community services, social services, places of worship) and the character won’t change with all the comings and goings already in effect.
- Security concerns by area residents seem unfounded (also they have their own smoking and dog-walking area if that matters). There are two people on staff at all times. Also did they think that security should be there to police the tenants? Usually it goes to protecting them.
- On the topic of seniors, this writer can tell you from personal experience that alcohol and drug abuse and addiction does not exclude them. In fact, they are overrepresented in the recovery area at KGH the several times I have visited a senior family member drying out there. This sad state of affairs is no doubt mainly due to doctors overprescribing opioids, but more often than not, loneliness and depression due to a lack of efficacy and interpersonal and community involvement plays a huge role. Somehow you would think there would be some common ground and empathy here.
- On an aesthetic note, the drawings reveal quite a bit more architectural strength than other buildings in the area, especially those 90s stucco mausoleums that cannot be adding much to overall neighbourhood value. I know this sounds superficial, but given the oft depressing institutional vibe of many a government housing development, this is uplifting.
- Drugs in BC – fentanyl is not going away. Tiny, dense easy to move drugs, around of the Pacific Rim are the future of drug trafficking and organized crime. Why are the victims blamed so much more often than many of the enablers (last summer's Peter German Report made it clear how major drug-selling gangs, casinos, real estate brokers, and blind-eye BC Liberal cabinet ministers and oversee-ers created the climate for today's fentanyl epidemic).