Put down your torches

Re: Thankful just to have a bed

A petition was recently circulated to my wife. It read similar to other petitions I had come across before, distributed among various central Okanagan communities such as Rutland, downtown Kelowna, and Rose Valley, among others. The common thread to these petitions is that a new housing project for those experiencing homelessness, and often mental health and addiction issues, has opened in one’s respective community, putting the safety of the families and the integrity of the community in jeopardy. In fact this position is so ubiquitous that it has come to be known as a well-described phenomenon called ‘NIMBY-ism’ which stands for Not in My Backyard - as in “we sympathize with the plight of the homeless, but they are not welcome in our community”.

This opposition is usually based on the assumption that these projects will lead to increased crime, violence, and social disarray, in addition to a reduction in property values in the surrounding communities. These petitions are not generally disseminated in bad faith; the authors and signatories are genuinely motivated by fear for the safety of their families and their properties. Where they are misguided, however, is that the underlying fear that motivates their inception derives from the propagation of stereotypes and misinformation that manifests with stigma and prejudice. 

Through this letter I intend to affirm the rights of the homeless to access safe housing, in my neighbourhood and in yours. I do not, however, intend to defend my position by shaming and deriding those who have expressed concern over social housing projects, since I respect the right to civil dissent and understand where the underlying concerns originate. I do intend to persuade by presenting a rational, empirical, and moral case for the inclusion of low income housing in all residential neighbourhoods. 

Let’s start by establishing some common ground. I am a resident of Lakeview Heights, a homeowner, and a parent. I too am concerned about the safety and well-being of my family and the value and integrity of my property. Where my perspective is unique, and hence my position diverges, is that I am also a physician and many of my patients reside at both the Brown Road and Super 8 interim housing sites. Further, I have spent a good deal of time evaluating the scientific literature on the effects of social policies, such as housing and harm reduction initiatives, on society's most marginalized populations and on the purported harms to the surrounding communities in which they are housed. While I don’t expect everyone to have the same perspective, I do think that anyone who is creating a petition, or signing one and circulating it to their friends and neighbours with conviction, has a responsibility to critically appraise the accuracy of the assertions made on that petition. 

There is, of course, nuance involved in the implementation of social housing projects, and it is not unreasonable for communities and stakeholders to expect to be consulted before, during, and after implementation. Having said that, human rights advocates might contend that no one else had to ask permission to move into the neighbourhood or had to be publicly scrutinized about their health issues and the substances they consume.

Notwithstanding, the importance of such projects cannot be overstated. The housing first model of addressing homelessness, in which people struggling with mental health and addiction are first housed as a priority intervention before, or simultaneously with, connection to other supportive resources, as described in the At Home/Chez-Soi initiative, has resoundingly demonstrated that those struggling with active addiction and mental health issues benefit from early housing as a necessary foundation for recovery. The data further shows that social housing projects are most effectively implemented in a distributed fashion, with units spread throughout multiple communities rather than concentrated all in one area such as the urban city centre.

There is often concern that these projects will attract vagrancy and crime into communities, but what needs to be understood is that the residents of these supportive housing units were already members of the community, they were simply forced to live covertly in tents and make-shift shelters previously, being chased from site to site by law enforcement authorities. 

While there is much variance and nuance in the science pertaining to social housing initiatives, many studies have shown that concerns about an increase in crime and social disorder surrounding supportive housing sites are often unfounded and the effect on property values within close proximity is negligible. Anecdotal reports on social media, often espoused with vitriol, about property crime and increased litter in communities that is attributed to new supportive housing units are not sound evidence of harms as they are fraught with confirmation bias (you observe keenly what you are already looking for) and may have occurred whether or not the housing facility had opened.

Disparaging access to safe drug consumption sites, such as the ‘wet tent’ described in the petition, does not deter drug use, but in fact forces it out into public spaces such as parks and public washrooms, where syringes and detritus are more likely to be discarded. Let’s peel back the curtains on what actually goes on at these sites. Patients struggling with substance use disorders are given access to sterilized equipment for consuming drugs under the supervision of a trained professional who can intervene if there is an adverse event. In some ways, this is not that dissimilar to the local pub. People are consuming a mind-altering substance, with clean supplies, in a discreet location, under the supervision of a staff person. The best available research has shown that safe consumption sites do not increase drug use or crime and disorder in surrounding communities and actually lead to a reduction in public drug use and discarded needles, not to mention the benefits to the person using drugs which include a reduction in transmission of HIV and viral hepatitis as well as linkages to much needed social and medical services. The sites that are attached to specific supportive housing are accessible only to residents of the housing units and therefore do not attract outside drug users to travel to access them. 

There is always great consternation regarding the location of the affordable housing sites, particularly when they are situated nearby to schools. The myth of the drug pusher, a malicious and anonymous street corner dealer, persists despite the widely accepted fact that the vast majority of youth get drugs from their peers and from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Further, studies consistently show that violent crime is committed far more frequently by people under the influence of alcohol than any other substance of abuse. Where is the moral outrage about the bars that are also within close proximity to schools? 

For the concerned taxpayer, I can assure you that treating addiction is always cheaper than not treating it. The costs of law enforcement, incarceration, property crime, and hospitalization far exceed the relative pittance that is required for supportive housing and harm reduction initiatives. 

Sometimes a rational argument based on empirical data is less compelling than a personal narrative. Before arguing emphatically for the disbanding of the Super 8 project, the author of the petition mentioned that she empathized with the homeless. These petitions usually include a token statement about having compassion for the homeless, but in order for one to genuinely empathize with another, one must attempt to truly embody another person’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. I would like those who have signed the petition to imagine having experienced what a patient of mine, who happens to reside at a supportive housing project in West Kelowna, has experienced. Imagine being an aboriginal woman who grew up in the foster care system, ricocheting from home to home that disparages your culture and ancestral traditions, after your birth parents struggled with addiction and were not able to look after you.

Imagine being subject to a brutally violent sexual assault in early adulthood and having no support to deal with the trauma. Imagine having your own children taken away because you lost control of your drug use, not having learned any other coping mechanisms. Imagine hating yourself for not being able to stop using drugs and for not being able to care for your children and facing equal scorn and rejection from society at large.

Now imagine finally having accessed stable housing and some semblance of normalcy after years of being homeless and then being confronted with a petition, signed by more than 1000 people, that asserts that you are a danger to their children and your mere existence is an affront to the integrity of the community. These are not inherently bad people. The factors that lead to addiction are notoriously complex and misunderstood, but in many cases these people have simply lost the lottery of life. 

To be clear, I understand why people are concerned about the situation of housing for people with uncontrolled mental illness and addiction adjacent to a daycare and I think it’s reasonable to ask for discourse and compromise between affordable housing associations and local communities. It would be naive and dishonest to assert that there is no chance of any negative consequences occurring as a result of erecting supported housing in our community, but I ask the residents of Lakeview Heights and other communities just like ours, if we refuse to allow the homeless to be housed in our community, then where should they be housed? It’s not acceptable to shrug our shoulders and make the problem someone else's.

We need to step up as a society and a community and treat our most vulnerable with compassion and respect. I urge you to teach your kids about tolerance and inclusion and, at a minimum, please think carefully about the petitions you sign and the comments you make online.  

Please put down your torches and extend a smile and a wave to our new neighbours. 

Dr. Nick Baldwin 


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