British Columbia·Video

Abbotsford activists protest city's treatment of homeless

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Abbotsford City Hall on Monday afternoon, following council's rejection of a proposed homeless shelter.

Activists gathered outside Abbotsford City Hall to protest city's homeless response

Hundreds of people gathered in the snow outside Abbotsford City Hall Monday to protest the city's handling of homelessness. (Jesse Johnston )

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the snow outside Abbotsford City Hall on Monday afternoon, following council's rejection of a proposed homeless shelter.

Last week, city councillors voted to reject a rezoning application that would have allowed Abbotsford Community Services to build a new supportive housing facility for up to 20 men. The facility would have been paid for by the province.

Ward Draper, activist and pastor of The 5 and 2 Ministries in Abbotsford, told CBC News on Friday the decision was the latest in a series of similar actions by local government that fail to address the city's growing homeless problem. 

"That was a healthy, small step in the right direction to bring some restoration to our community for 20 homeless men. But, again, our city decides, 'Nah let's not deal with this. Let's just put this off,'" said Draper.

"We keep seeing how consistently the city is either ignoring, putting off or just failing to address a very real issue in our community."

Organizer Elsie Neufeld was happy with the turnout. She said the numbers were indicative of support for action against homelessness in the city.

"If we had 30 people or if we had a 1000, we'd be happy with anything. The buzz in this town has been incredible."

Elizabeth Dow, director of the University of the Fraser Valley's School of Social Work, agrees the city isn't addressing the community's needs. 

"With this decision, it's going to take a number of years to come up with another solution. Abbotsford Community Services was ready to start building because it's an urgent need right at the present time,"  she said. 

"It's not only the homeless individuals who are affected — all of the community is affected. If we're wanting a really healthy and community-based city, we need to respond to the needs of everyone."

Draper said demonstrators are urging the city to take on what he calls its "homelessness crisis."

"We really had enough. We need some active, healthy, very tangible responses to address growing social issues that we have." 

BIA defends decision

The downtown Abbotsford Business Improvement Association lobbied against approving the 20-bed Abbotsford Community Services facility at 2408 Montvue Avenue earlier this month.

Abbotsford BIA executive director Tina Stewart said the shelter was a "bad fit" for the proposed location.

"This is the only area in all of Abbotsford that strictly prohibits an area such as this. The rest of Abbotsford does not have that in their bylaws," she said. 

"It's just something that we feel would set a pretty dangerous precedent."

Homelessness an ongoing problem

The battle between the City of Abbotsford and its homeless population ignited last June, when city crews spread chicken manure on a popular gathering place for the homeless. The city apologized for the incident, but homeless people and protesters launched a human rights complaint against the city a few months later.

In September, the city ordered residents of a homeless camp on Gladys Avenue to remove their belongings and vacate the premises.

A similar order was issued to homeless residents living in Jubilee Park in December by B.C. Supreme Court. The homeless people were provided no alternative living spaces in either case.

Abbotsford police have also reportedly destroyed tents belonging to homeless people and pepper-sprayed residents of makeshift homeless encampments. 

The City of Abbotsford has a bylaw that prohibits people from sleeping in public parks, which it says it is simply trying to enforce.