British Columbia·In Depth

'Increasing distrust': tensions rise in Marpole homeless debate

"We all want the same thing, which is less homelessness in the community, and I think [that's] being drowned out in the intensity of the conversation."

Debates on where the homeless should be housed are intensifying throughout B.C., to the distress of advocates

People against proposed modular housing in the Vancouver community of Marpole rally outside city hall on Nov. 10, 2017. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

As winter draws nearer, the temperature is rising in Marpole. 

It was just two weeks ago that The City of Vancouver announced modular housing units for the homeless would be constructed on a plot of land at the northeast corner of West 59th Avenue and Heather Street.

It's one of several sites where modular homes will be built, thanks to $66 million provided by the provincial government, as the city hopes to house 600 people in the temporary buildings by the end of this winter. 

The two Marpole units will have care workers on site 24/7, and all residents will have access to health and support services. There were no public incidents at the city's pilot project for modular housing at Main and Terminal.

But the modular homes would be across the street from two schools, one for elementary students. And Marpole is an area where new developments have been infrequent in recent decades.

You can see where this is headed.

"It's a good idea to settle them. But you have to have consultation. You have to ask people, 'Would you accept in this location or not?'" said Long Trak, during a protest outside City Hall last week attended by around 400 people. 

"Please don't misunderstand," said Craig White at the same protest, one of several last week.  

"We care about helping people, but we also want to make sure that the most vulnerable demographic, our children, are properly considered." 

The modular housing units are slated to go on a plot of land owned by Onni at 59th Avenue and Heather Street. (Google Streetview)

Homeless population growing through the province

While this is the first major controversy this year in Vancouver over housing the homeless, it isn't the first in B.C.

In Maple Ridge, the mayor's efforts to find a solution to a homeless camp has embroiled the city. In Victoria, citizens against the government's current homeless strategy are mobilizing for next year's municipal elections

Even in a mid-sized city further afield like Vernon, a growing homeless camp has put the issue on the political frontburner for the first time in recent memory. 

"We're seeing homelessness at record highs. People are noticing homelessness in places they've never noticed it before. People are on the edge who have never been there before," says Jeremy Hunka, a spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission. 

"It's at such a high level, people are seeing it, people's passions or feelings about it are being heightened. It's rising as the issue itself is rising." 

Being proactive

The question is, can anything be done to lower the temperature? 

Andy Yan is director of Simon Fraser University's City Program, and has been speaking about the benefits of the Marpole proposal. He believes the city should have announced projects in less residential areas of the city first.

Without anything for Marpole residents to compare the consultation process to, it allowed opposition to ferment, since the city wasn't proactive in explaining the benefits of modular homes.

"That's really part of this — doing it in a way that people feel respected. And making them feel there's a sense of fairness in this discussion, instead of you're 'picking on my neighbourhood,'" said Yan, who added he's more generally worried by a "increasing mistrust" between citizens and government. 

Hunka also stresses a proactive approach.

He says when the UGM doubled the size of their shelter in 2011, they spoke with protesters, agreed to open washrooms at the shelter 24/7, and now regularly clean the surrounding streets and alleyways.

"We know the legitimate concerns people have can be addressed, and it can be better for everyone," he said.

"Plans to house the homeless will make things better for everybody, including the protesters ... There will be a more effective use of their tax dollars, and they may likely see a reduction in the problems they fear."

For now though, he feels mostly dismay about the conversations happening. 

"It's difficult to watch. It's really hard to almost put into words, because it's just such a life and death issue, and we don't like to see things at a fever pitch that have such a massive impact on so many people's lives," he said.

"We all want the same thing, which is less homelessness in the community, and I think [that's] being drowned out in the intensity of the conversation." 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.