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NIMBYism based on ‘fear of the unknown’

Community support worker Rod Simpson plays a ukulele while Dianne Lennerton, a resident of RainCity Housing’s Fraser Street works on her philosophy schoolwork

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When RainCity Housing was preparing to open its supported housing facility five years ago on Vancouver's Fraser Street, the society met immense opposition.

Residents and business owners filled town-hall meetings to express their anger, voicing concerns that tenants with mental health or addiction issues would pose safety concerns and attract drug dealers to the neighbourhood.

The project became so controversial that RainCity's executive director received a death threat.

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But after it opened, the cries were silenced.

Tenants of the abstinence-based transitional facility integrated into the community, and some found employment nearby.

"We set up a formal community advisory committee, but there really wasn't a lot to respond to," said RainCity associate director Sean Spear.

What happened at RainCity is reflected in the findings of an Angus Reid poll conducted for the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness.

It found that while most Metro Vancouver residents consider homelessness a major concern and feel more affordable housing and support services are needed, they are reluctant to volunteer their own neighbourhoods.

The 1,006 randomly selected adults were polled online from Sept. 10 to 12, and the results have been statistically weighted according to census data to ensure a representative sample, according to the survey methodology. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 per cent.

Nine out of 10 people polled agreed that the homeless "should have access to services and information that they need," said committee co-chair Alice Sundberg, who presented the findings at a news conference in Burnaby on Thursday. "Nine out of 10 of us also agree that homeless people should be treated with dignity and respect. A significant majority of us – seven out of 10 – agrees that it is possible to have a community in which there will be a home for everyone who chooses to have one."

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But respondents were less enthusiastic about having them in their neighbourhoods. More than half of those surveyed – 54 per cent – said "housing in their community should be there for the people who can afford it." Ms. Sundberg said this underscores people's fear of the unknown and belief that if they had to work hard to afford housing in their neighbourhoods, others should too.

Ms. Sundberg pointed to the fall, 2009, opening of RainCity's Fraser Street facility as an example.

"Since that housing's been built, and people are living there, the local businesses are very supportive," Ms. Sundberg said. "They've even hired some of the people who live there. The neighbourhood has realized nothing bad is happening; in fact, things have really improved."

Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs said such fears are common, but unwarranted.

"Time after time, neighbourhoods come forward with deeply held concerns with what the impact will be on the neighbourhood of putting in supported housing, or social housing, or even seniors' housing," he said. "The reality is, once it's in, no one can recall what the fuss was about."

Ms. Sundberg emphasized the importance of sharing such stories to quell the future concerns.

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"It's fear of the unknown, it's fear of change," she said. "Helping people to understand what that change means, and how it actually can really improve things in your neighbourhood, I think that will make people feel a bit more welcoming."

Among other survey findings: Nearly one in four (23 per cent) know someone who is homeless, or has been homeless in the past five years; 60 per cent see increased job training and employment opportunities as the ideal way to address aboriginal homelessness; and two-thirds (67 per cent) believe drug and alcohol addictions are a leading cause of homelessness.

The most trusted organizations are charities and non-profits (86 per cent), medical professionals (80 per cent), foundations (77 per cent), religious organizations (75 per cent) and housing co-operatives, while the least trusted are private businesses (38 per cent), realtors (20 per cent) and for-profit property developers (20 per cent).

The survey was released in time for the seventh annual Homelessness Action Week, running Oct. 7 to 13.

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About the Author
News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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