A: Probably the best answer we can provide is that when a neighbourhood or a commercial area in Abbotsford gets a reputation that reduces desirability, it affects property values, business, employment, and any number of other factors that have a bearing on everyone’s lives, livelihoods and quality of life.
What hasn’t worked
The homeowners and business owners involved with BEAP have tried (repeatedly for well over a decade, in some cases) every “traditional” approach to improve the cleanliness, safety and harmony in their neighbourhoods: police and by-laws enforcement, incentives, confrontation… you name it. Any effect has been minimal and short-lived, at best. Sometimes, along with burning through significant time and expense, the situations have seemed to be made worse, not better. For the most part, there was no reason for anyone to take pride in these approaches. They were ineffective and could bring out the worst in people.
The myth of a disorganized homeless/drug using community
While it may seem that homeless and drug using citizens in Abbotsford are a disorganized, chaotic element that can’t be counted on for anything but disturbance, there is actually a very strong networkamong many of these citizens. Most areas of the city have what we call “natural leaders” who others look to for direction and support in navigating the many hazards of homelessness. In fact, a group called the Drug War Survivors (DWS) has been meeting continuously in Abbotsford for more than a decade (graciously given space by Abbotsford Community Services for meetings). At the end of 2017, an organization (Matsqui-Abbotsford Impact Society) was granted funds by the Fraser Health Authority to better support the self-organizing of this informal group (which had nonetheless managed to successfully take the city to court and lobby for the repeal of the city’s anti-harm reduction bylaw).
Natural evolution from “natural leaders”
These “natural leaders” and the several hundred citizens (with current and past experience of homelessness and/or drug use) are concerned about their relationships with the other citizens of Abbotsford. In mid-2018, they started an initiative to regularly sweep the community for improperly discarded drug injection equipment. In fact, many of the members had already been doing these sweeps informally, but often without proper equipment and supplies or convenient and reliable drop-off protocols. While there is still much to do in this area, on account of this peer-initiated and designed initiative Abbotsford now boasts of needle collection rates exceeding any other municipality in the Fraser Valley.
Not “done to or with,” but “done by” homeless/drug using citizens
BEAP was not suggested to or forced on homeless and drug using citizens; it emerged from them—both because, as with needle collection, this was work many individuals were already voluntarily trying to do (without, again, proper supplies and protocols to make it feel or actually be very successful), and because many felt they were ready and wanted an opportunity to step back into some form of employment (even if just a casual labour pool that they can join when they are having a good moment).
So, in short: While some may argue that BEAP is “employing the homeless to clean up their own mess,” the fact is that there are multiple levels of functioning in the homeless and drug using community. Some people have been so ground down by the circumstances that led to their homelessness that they may only be in a position to attend to their most basic and urgent needs. They may have little capacity to be anything but thoughtless neighbours. Nonetheless, they are connected to their peers, and the hope is that BEAP will further strengthen these connections, leading to a real, noticeable (if not immediate and total) solution that is both cost-effective and humane… and that, as the tag line the group chose says, “elevates from within.”