Terwillegar Towne is a new suburban community struggling with an old problem: urban homelessness.
Located in the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, it recently learned that an affordable housing complex for 60 low-risk people coming out of homelessness is proposed in a remote corner of the community near the intersection of a freeway and a busy road. Terwillegar residents also learned that the Anglican Church was providing the land through a low-cost, long-term lease to the Jasper Place Health and Wellness Centre (an organization that builds affordable housing) and that a funding proposal to pay for the project was being finalized with Homeward Trust (an organization that funds affordable housing).
This has caused a backlash of extreme emotions within the community both for and against the project.
The allegory below is an editorial commentary that goes to the very heart of what the definition of "urban community" really means.
Once upon a time, there was a magical place called Terwillegar Islande. It was the
southernmost island in an archipelago of many different islands. For 10 years, the 6,700 residents of Terwillegar Islande had fashioned an almost Disney-esque lifestyle. In fact, while nobody knew what the "e" at the end of Islande stood for, they all agreed it made the island sound all the more quaint.
In the archipelago there was Commercial Island for shopping, Festival Island for entertainment, Health Island for medical care, Business Island for working, and so forth. The northern residential islands were a little rougher (at least from the perspective of Terwillegar Islande) and Central Island was the worst, where there was reportedly high crime, social problems, and abuse.
Most of the residents of Terwillegar Islande had personal motor boats they could use to visit the other islands for whatever they needed. And there were, of course, ferries for those few who did not own their own boats, but they just ran twice an hour.
Terwillegar Islanders liked that they were far away from the harsher realities of the other islands. It made them feel safe. They built churches on the Islande and many worshiped a prophet who had, two thousand years ago, preached about the importance of sharing wealth and good fortune with those less fortunate.
One day word got out that, in three months, a boat with 60 strangers from Central Island was going to arrive. An intrepid reporter with The Archipelago Journal spread the word to all the islands and very quickly Terwillegar Islande was in an uproar!
It was soon discovered that one of the churches -- the Angel Church -- was actually living the message of its prophet and was working with The Docking Company to prepare a place for the strangers to land in one of the most remote parts of Terwillegar Islande, near the rough and noisy Henday Sea.
Despite the landing site's remote location, a chorus of opposition rose:
"Can't we find them another island?"
"What will they do here?"
"Commercial Island is too far for them! Health Island is too far for them!"
"I hear they are criminals!I hear they have mental health problems!"
"They don't have their own boats. They'll have to use the ferries!"
"We can't let them ashore; our houses won't be worth as much!"
The Angel Church was not dissuaded. While the members of the Angel Church were people of faith, they were also sensible people of facts. They knew on other islands around the world that when strangers like these arrive on the shores, the larger communities join together to lift them up and don't get dragged down.
The angry islanders, too, were not dissuaded. They quickly called a town hall meeting in another Church of the prophet. To bolster their numbers, they sent the call to nearby Magrath Island, MacTaggart Island, and Leger Island. The angriest of the islanders showed up.
Politicians overseeing the hundreds of islands in the archipelago spoke in general terms of how they agree that all people should have a shore to land on. The Ferry Management Company was there to talk authoritatively about ferry schedules. The Archipelago Police Service was there to talk about crime statistics. And Homeshore Trust, the funding agency for the landing site of the strangers, was there to answer questions about funding the landing. The Docking Company directly overseeing the landing and the Angel Church did not attend. They already had meetings planned to meet with the Islanders later in a different location.
One by one, Islanders at the town hall meeting spoke:
"If they are in a remote part of the Islande, what will these strangers do? Surely they will
get into trouble!"
"Tell us everything about these strangers! We need to know everything about them!"
"I hired a lawyer! I'm going to launch a law suit!"
"I'm going to attend the landing permit hearing! Just you wait and see!"
"Surely the Angel Church is violating the tax laws!"
"Who are these strangers?"
"Why can't we limit them to just 15?"
"Why do the strangers need assistance at the landing site? Surely this is a sign that they
are a problem!"
"Why weren't we told sooner?"
"Why weren't we given an opportunity to grant permission?"
The crowd's anger increased as it fed on itself.
Alas, the Terwillegar Islanders had forgotten.
They had forgotten that they live in the real world -- and that the little paradise they had created, despite all its beauty, was at its roots a fantasy.
Even though many Islanders had struggles, perhaps adversity had not (yet) touched the Islanders deeply enough for them to empathize with the plight of the 60 shoreless strangers. Many believed that the problems that these refugees faced on Central Island were completely of their own making and that turning them away was simply moral justice.
They had forgotten what the true meaning of Community is: helping one another through adversity.
They didn't know any Central Islanders personally so they didn't understand the strife from which they were escaping and their desperate need to find a friendly shore. They forgot that people coming from adversity need a helping hand not a push back into the cold sea.
But something started to happen to the Terwillegar Islanders. A small but growing cadre of Islanders was changing their point of view. They were beginning to see the arrival of the strangers as an opportunity, not a problem. So they started asking different questions.
Maybe the question isn't: "How do we stop them from coming ashore?"
Maybe the question is: "How do we make their landing better -- for us and for the new strangers?"
Maybe the "e" should stand for "Embrace" and not "Exclude"?
Maybe Community doesn't come from a shore?
Maybe Community is a little bit more...
And what happened, then? Well, in Terwillegar they say
That the Islanders' small hearts grew three sizes that day!
And then the true meaning of Community came through,
And the Islanders found the strength of 6,700 Islanders -- plus two!