The Shepherds of Good Hope just purchased a hotel about two blocks from my house. It will provide supportive housing for about 50 clients, including frail elderly people, people who are succeeding in the Managed Alcohol Program, and people living with mental illness.
Carlington has reacted with the predictable community rallying cry of “Not in My Back Yard!” I’ve heard comments about property values plunging, and even about Ottawa “dumping its garbage” on Carlington. It’s gotten ugly. Some people are angry that they only found out about it in the paper. They believe the community should have been consulted beforehand, and should have had a chance to prevent it.
Last night there was a community meeting.
The format of the two-hour meeting was that several people spoke briefly – City Councilor Maria McRae, Wendy Muckle from Ottawa Inner City Health, Police Chief Vern White, Paul Soucie from the Shepherds, and Marian Wright from the Canadian Mental Health Association. Then the floor was opened to questions and comments from the community.
Wendy Muckle attempted to allay people’s fears by describing the population of clients who will be permitted to move to Carlington. They are not drug users or panhandlers. They are elderly and frail. This move is considered a privilege, and there are crystal-clear behavioural expectations to which the clients must adhere. “Absolutely, unequivocally, no they will not be walking around the neighbourhood drunk or stoned. We might not be able to solve the existing drug and alcohol problems in Carlington, but we won’t be adding to them.”
There were some angry people in the audience. People who yelled and heckled the speakers. People who insisted on being heard but refused to listen. Much of their anger seemed to be only peripherally related to Shepherds.
There were other comments too, like “My back yard is full,” and “How do we know that it won’t be turned into a safe injection site in a year or two?” and “It’s time to help us.”
I was actually prepared to stand up and speak at this meeting, even though public speaking rattles me to my very core. But this is where my neighbourhood and my values intersect, so I was willing to put myself through the rattling.
I would have said something like this:
“The one thing Shepherds’ clients all have in common is that they have problems. But just because someone has a problem doesn’t mean they have every problem, and it doesn’t mean they have nothing but problems, and it doesn’t mean they are problems, or that their problems are going to contaminate their neighbourhood.
As for property values, there’s nothing intrinsic about the Shepherds that will cause our property values to fall. But property values are sensitive to public opinion. If we go around insisting in advance that Shepherds will force our property values down, then we run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s to everyone’s advantage that we avoid casting speculative aspersions.
I hope Carlington will rise to the occasion and be open-minded and open-hearted enough to be good neighbours and to give our new neighbours a chance to be good neighbours to us.”
But I didn’t speak. It was a huge and surprising crowd. There were more Shepherds’ supporters than I expected – perhaps a quarter of the crowd. And of those who objected to Shepherds, it turns out they weren’t so much afraid that Shepherds was going to come into the neighbourhood and destroy it – it was more like they were angry that Shepherds was going to come into the neighbourhood and not fix it. Person after person talked about the existing problems in the neighbourhood. Prostitution. Drugs. Panhandling. Crime.
I find this fascinating, because I honestly don’t see a whole lot of any of that around here. There’s one old woman who panhandles outside Mac’s. The 2-day prostitution sweep netted the arrests of two sex trade workers and two clients, which is hardly indicative of a huge prostitution problem. Chief Vern White said the crime stats show that Carlington has been improving dramatically over the last couple of years. But clearly people’s perceptions are at odds with the statistics, because they were adamant that things are getting worse.
My own criticisms of Carlington centre more on what’s missing from the neighbourhood. We need more good stuff. Recreation facilities. A grocery store. A library. A coffee shop. A yarn shop. Supportive housing.
Anyway, it was an interesting, if volatile, meeting. And I’m more pleased than ever that Shepherds is coming to my neighbourhood.