COLUMN: Social amnesty divides community

Social housing projects that are at the core of a massive controversy are not only rooted in location and zoning of the proposed facilities, but also in the question of social amnesty.

The proposal that would see Quarterway Elementary School wedged in between two 36-unit ‘low barrier’ facilities is causing concern, and that is understandable. It is human nature to protect your children, your property and social stability, and to fight any element that threatens those values.

Introducing an unknown variable into that structure is, for all intents and purposes, an ominous proposal right from the start.

Residents affected by this perceived “threat” are right to challenge government to protect their interests.

But what lurks beneath the rezoning process, and as a result out of the city’s hands, is this: Who are these people who will be moving in?  Will they be attracting drug dealers and other threats to a neighbourhood that already employs several social services, that already fulfills its share of propping up the socially wounded? Is there a contractual ‘out’ if the neighbourhood is disrupted?

Those questions have not been answered by the province, the key facilitator of the Housing First program, and it has been glaringly obvious provincial representation was nowhere to be found during the recent public hearings.

The city’s role in Housing First is to provide land and nothing more. The province and its partners are responsible for managing the facilities and choosing its occupants.

Housing First is a good program. It will help rid Nanaimo and other B.C. cities of people living on the street, is cost-effective, and will benefit the entire community.

But it will only work if the human element is addressed, and so far in that respect, the program has failed.

Right from the start, preconceptions can be made about the 70 or so residents moving into the Bowen and Townsite roads social housing. These people are known drug users, some presumably have criminal pasts as a result, none of them pay taxes, none of them own property and all of them rely on social security.

Yet they are provided amnesty by being given free housing, where they are allowed to continue their illegal and possibly disruptive habits.

This kind of social amnesty is bound to create ill will.  Hardworking people who pay a mortgage, pay taxes for school boards, municipalities and hospitals, are also being asked to foot the bill for these social housing projects through provincial taxes, as well as be neighbours.

Many more are concerned their own properties will be reduced by as much as 15 per cent. What’s more, your average employed, tax-paying citizen is not allowed to use illegal drugs.

Resentment builds.

Social amnesty is a deeply personal and emotional topic, and we’re seeing those emotions left on the floor of Shaw Auditorium during public hearings.

Yet we need to help people who have problems and don’t have a place to live, or at least try. They are human beings. As a city, a province and a country we need to dive back into the trenches and carry out our fallen.

I believe an awful lot can be resolved through an act similar to restorative justice.

In restorative justice, the victim and his or her assailant meet face-to-face in an effort to better understand each other’s position and understand why an incident happened. It has been successful because it erodes the fear of the unknown and creates dialogue and understanding. It introduces the human element, it introduces the people involved.

This should happen with these social housing projects – the element of the unknown must be addressed. Why? Because real challenges can always be overcome. It is the challenges that are imagined that are unconquerable.


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