Yes, In My Back Yard. Please

A good friend of mine recently moved from a rented basement apartment on the southern edge of Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue neighbourhood to a rental high-rise apartment on the northern edge of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood. Her former home was virtually across the street from the McCauley neighbourhood, which is the hub of Edmonton’s social housing and services for Edmonton’s homeless and marginalized citizens. Her new neighbourhood — my neighbourhood for three decades — has been voted Edmonton’s “Best Neighbourhood” for a number of years.  For some time now, however, I have been noticing a severe gap in Strathcona’s social fabric, a gap highlighted recently by an unexpectedly locked door.

For those who don’t know Edmonton, one of the most obvious things about the place is that there is a huge forest with a river running through it stretching from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of the City. This mega-central park (twenty-something times the size of that famous park in NYC) marks the edge of Downtown on the north side of the River and the edge of Old Strathcona on the south side of the River.  McCauley is northeast of Downtown. Most of the services for homeless and marginalized people are north of the River. Of course, as much as some more privileged might like it to be so, the marginalized do not confine themselves to a ghetto designated for them.

Here in my little neighbourhood there are a number of individuals I’ve come to know over the years – “gleaners” I sometimes call them – who make their weekly rounds collecting bottles and cans to augment whatever meager income they may have from other sources. In particular I’ve come to know Vivian and her dog Chewy. Often Vivian sits on one of the benches I’ve put in the alley behind my home as resting places for any neighbours who may need a break. Vivian often gives Chewy a drink of water and rests there. Vivian’s been having some health issues so the shady resting spot is important.  On Saturday morning Vivian is usually selling Our Voice at the Farmers’ Market. She is one of my neighbours although I’m not exactly sure where she lives.

This summer there has been a noticeable increase in the number of new faces I see amongst the “gleaners” in my neighbourhood. I expect some of these new faces are marginalized people displaced by the Fort McMurray wildfire and members of the McMurray Precariate pushed to the margin by that fire. But many seem to be those displaced by the new Downtown Arena. And there will be more.  A few days ago a couple of new faces sat down on the sidewalk out in front of my place.  It was a hot day. They heard me puttering about with my plants and one called over to ask if I minded if they sat there for a bit. I joined them for a chat and told them that as long as they didn’t leave a mess or burn down anyone’s house, of course I didn’t mind if they sat there. We talked a bit and then they offered me “a tip”: “the K&K Foodliner over on Whyte Ave is having a barbecue of bratwurst and stuff in their parking lot and for about three bucks you can get a nice bratwurst on a bun and a drink.” They were just waiting for the grill to get nice and greasy (and having a beer on the sidewalk) before going to get some good, cheap food. A while later they headed off to the K&K. They didn’t leave a mess. They only left the memory of a conversation and a few laughs.

Over the years I’ve been happy to make many memories of conversations and laughs with neighbours on the street. I strongly believe that the vast majority of people try to live in peace and without malice. And I know for a certainty a mean spirit will be found in a house just as often as on the street.

Until a few years ago when the Neighbour Centre opened on 104th Street, my little set of benches was one of the few places on the Southside that Vivian and Chewy and other tired neighbours could be sure of a welcome.  Certainly the Youth Emergency Shelter (officially Youth Empowerment & Support Services) on the other side of the Mill Creek Ravine – despite resistance from the “community” – has become an accepted institution, but until the Neighbour Centre opened as a day shelter and warm up space in the winter, there was no refuge on my side of the river for marginalized adults — and there still is no overnight shelter.  I fear that after the Terwillegar embarrassment, it will be a long time before any church or charitable organization alone floats the idea.

The unexpectedly locked door I mentioned, however, has spurred me to say to anyone who will hear “An overnight homeless shelter is needed in Strathcona, in the best neighbourhood in the city, in my neighbourhood, as soon as possible.”  I already have a little place of refuge literally in my back yard.

I don’t say NIMBY, I say YIMBY.

My friend and I returned to her new building one evening shortly after eight and found the outside door to the lobby locked.  Fortunately we noticed the keycard reader quite far from the door and were able to open this never-before-locked entrance. We dismissed the situation uncomfortably as a mixup, but later learned that the building’s new policy was to lock the outer door at eight every evening “due to the increasing number of homeless people displaced by the Downtown Arena” who were trying to find shelter in the outer lobby.

So, now, when visitors arrive after eight, they have to phone or text the resident who must then come down to the lobby and open the door for the visitor. No longer can a visitor enter the outer lobby, buzz the apartment number, and be buzzed in remotely. Imagine a get-together of six or eight guests, each arriving separately. Down and up a dozen stories to open the door for each arrival. Better to go down once and stick a block in the outer door. Or even better ask a homeless guy to act as outer-doorman and slip him a twenty in the morning.

This silliness is happening, not because homeless people seek shelter, but because the Arena has displaced people to a neighbourhood lacking adequate infrastructure for marginalized citizens, infrastructure which is decades overdue.

Personally, I think the building management’s solution to the “problem” of people looking for a dry place to spend the night is pretty much unworkable and won’t last more than a few weeks. The real solution will be for the City, churches, charities, and the wider community to come together and provide support to our fellow citizens.  Yes, the Mayor and Council are determined to End Homelessness by 2019 or something but we have neighbours right now, today, who need a safe, dry, warm place to go at night. The City should take the lead in bringing us all together to make an overnight shelter on the south side of the River, in my neighbourhood, a reality.

Soon.

 Update, December 13th, 2016: Well, winter is here. And Death. But no shelter on the southside. We lost a neighbour. After Ricky, how many more deaths on the Avenue will it take?.

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