08/27/2013 11:42 EDT | Updated 10/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Debate Rages on in Terwillegar Towne

The saga of the proposed supportive housing complex in Edmonton's suburban Terwillegar Towne continues. On both sides of the issue, Terwillegar Towne residents are really rolling up their sleeves and getting educated on the complex subject of homelessness.

An engaged and aware population is critical to understanding why Edmonton's 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness discarded the old failed "patch and forget" solutions in favour of the "house and support" approach that is proving -- with an over 80% success rate -- to be a winning strategy in transitioning people from homelessness.

On Thursday night, one of several information sessions on the project was held at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. If you read some reports in the news (CBC: Tempers flare at Terwillegar housing meeting) you'd assume the entire room was angry. If you were there, you also heard plenty of applause in support of the project albeit outweighed in volume by the hecklers.

The residents asked "pointed questions" and often got frustrated with "process answers". Almost all of the questions were stabs at getting a hook into the process with, presumably, hopes to derail it. The hooks failed to catch - and the feeling of powerlessness and of apparently not being heard made people angry.

The residents of Terwillegar Towne are getting a harsh civics lesson in democracy. This is now not an esoteric academic grade-school concept. They are learning first hand the tangible difference between direct democracy (voting issue-by-issue through referenda and ballot initiatives) and indirect democracy (voting through elected representatives).

Our democracy is the latter and, to a large extent, indirect democracy is what makes Canada great. The perils of direct democracy are legion and can paralyze a society. Indirect democracy means that the complexity of governing a myriad of interrelated social and economic issues is dealt with through coherent and internally consistent policies. If you don't like the policies as a whole, you vote the government out. There is no picking and choosing.

In the political arena, governments of all political stripes and at all levels - federal, provincial, and municipal - have campaigned and won elections on the platform of eliminating homelessness. It is a motherhood issue and it should come as no surprise that programs and processes are set up to realize this promise.

If the project opponents in Terwillegar Towne feel they can make homelessness a campaign issue to bring down candidates, well, it's a free country and they are welcome to try. They would have to come up with a model that works better than the proven Housing First approach and they would have to get the majority of the electorate to believe them.

What does this mean for Terwillegar Towne? You need to know the rules of the game if you want to play it.

All the players directly engaged in this project know the rules and are properly following the processes. The building being planned is appropriate for the municipal zoning requirements for high-density housing. The services being included for the tenants are meeting the funding requirements. The funding aggregator (Homeward Trust) is pooling money from the various levels of government to according to government rules and policies.

Will there be community consensus on this issue? No. And while giving Terwillegar Towne residents a voice is a requirement in these processes, it is not a veto. There won't be a vote on this specific project. Period.

Having said that, it is not a done deal. Dave Hancock, provincial Minister of Human Services and the member of the legislative assembly in whose constituency the project is planned, said on his website:

The Municipal Affairs grants have not been funded and there remain conditions outstanding, one of which is completion of the necessary community consultation.

The Homeward Trust grant is also conditional. Those conditions require JPWC to show how they are going to obtain community support, as well as requirement regarding the approval of Municipal Affairs, the development permits including how the site is to be serviced and the cost of same, and the overall capital cost of the land and building.

Additional conditions to be met include: permanent supports are in place; demonstrate how they are linked and support the plan to end homelessness; must provide letters of support from stakeholders on the appropriateness of the scale; and, show evidence of consultation.

Minister Hancock is a strong advocate for his government's policies on homelessness, patiently and transparently he explained the processes (the "rules"), and has reiterated there is still some distance to go.

The two main issues raised by the Terwillegar Towne residents are, first, around whether the size of a 60-unit complex with 60 recently homeless individuals is risking creating a mini-ghetto that simply transplants the root problems of homelessness to a suburban location and, second, will potential substance abusers pose a serious physical risk to other residents in Terwillegar Towne?

Jasper Place Health and Wellness Centre (JPHWC) explained that the screening tools and the support services are specifically targeted at addressing these risks. (It should be noted that there is no requirement for a landlord to provide any of these services and that residents of the new project will be evicted if they don't conform to the services or fail to abide by their leases.)

For some, even though they support ending homelessness in principle, any risk is too much and for others, there was recognition that accepting the risk and even a personal commitment is necessary to end homelessness.

This sentiment was embodied by Lt.-Commander Mercy Yeboah-Ampadu:

"Lt.-Commander Mercy Yeboah-Ampadu, a [black] military social worker, veteran of Canada's Afghan mission, [mother], and a resident of Terwillegar Gardens, finally got her turn at the mike.

'As a mother, I don't want this project in my back yard. I am scared. I admit it. On the other hand, the mother, social worker and military service member in me recognizes that this is what Canada is made of: people working together being someone's neighbour.

'Canada is a great country. People fought so that I could have my freedom to debate; so that as a person of colour I could choose which neighbourhood I wanted to live in.'"

Source: The Edmonton Journal

There are strong supporters of the project within the Terwillegar Towne community. And since it is unlikely that mere opposition by some to the project will stop it, possibly one of the best ways for the community to get control and mitigate the risk is to make a personal commitment to meet the new residents, build a bridge to them, and welcome them as neighbours.