One’s commitment to a cause-such as ending homelessness-may start with issuing a statement or signing a petition, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t end there, said Anglican diocese of Edmonton Bishop Jane Alexander.
“If you sign that statement, you have to stand behind it and you’ve got to be prepared to stand up and be counted,” Alexander told members of Council of General Synod (CoGS), the Anglican Church of Canada’s governing body between General Synods, during its meeting here Nov. 14 to 17. “And you have to actually be prepared to stand up to your neighbours and say, ‘Who are you to tell us who can live in our neighbourhood?’ ”
Alexander offered the advice after speaking about her diocese’s “painful” experience when it got involved in Housing First and the City of Edmonton’s 10-year plan to end homelessness in the city. Alexander spoke in the context of a progress report made to CoGS by Henriette Thompson, General Synod’s public witness co-ordinator for social and ecological justice, about efforts across the church to follow through on the Anglican and Lutheran churches’ Joint Declaration on Housing and Homelessness.
Edmonton diocese, wishing to put into practice a 2011 interfaith statement’s call to end homelessness and provide affordable housing-to which it was a signatory-had entered into a memorandum of understanding with Jasper Place Health and Wellness to build a 60-unit building next to Holy Trinity Riverbend Church in Terwillegar Towne, in southwest Edmonton.
Last November 5, the diocese announced it was withdrawing from the project, and Alexander told the local media that the community consultation process had been “deeply flawed” and the project could not be successful in its current form. “We don’t think it’s the right project at the right time,” she had said, adding that the diocese remained committed to “doing something with that land that will help us to commit to our responsibility in the 10-year plan to end homelessness…”
The church wasn’t caving in to community pressure from “10 per cent or so of the community that have lobbied, bullied and spoken most loudly and aggressively against any such project,” Alexander told members of her diocese in a letter sent ahead of the announcement. “This is not the case. There are problems with the project and we do not believe that it has any chance of succeeding in its current form. We have now completed our due diligence on the proposal and cannot support it.” She asked for the diocese’s patience, saying, “there will be a project on the land and it will further your vision for an inclusive and just community.”
Alexander shared with CoGS what the “enormous pushback” from some members of the Terwillegar community was like. “I had a meeting with the community and it was painful,” she said, noting such comments as, “No way, not here. What’s going to happen to my property value? I came here to get away from people like that.”
The church also had to deal with “bullying, lobbying, threats of violence, threats of disrupting church services,” she said. Some graffiti was sprayed on its property with the words, “No homeless.”
Alexander told CoGS members that they need to be ready for “awful things,” including venomous language from opponents. “If you’re going to do it [launch projects to end homelessness], please be ready.”
But as painful as the experience was, Alexander said, “it’s good work.” She added that other programs of the diocese continue, including one that teaches people in the church to be good neighbours and not to treat the homeless and the poor as projects to be worked with.
Thompson, for her part, explained the principles and goals of Housing First. The initial goal is to offer homeless people a place to live according to their needs and choices, and to offer them services that will meet these needs.
While another goal is to offer support so that they can be self-sufficient and participate fully in society, Housing First also operates on the principle of “changing the system, not the person,” she added.
Thompson also told CoGS that postcards urging Canada’s premiers to establish a housing strategy that addresses homelessness-which were signed at the Joint Assembly in July-were delivered on Aug. 15.
At the Joint Assembly, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada had signed a declaration committing their members to “advocate for renewed federal funding.” They also called for
an “integrated national collaborative strategy and greater accountability on the part of provinces and municipalities” in addressing homelessness and substandard housing.
“As we look across Canada, we are disturbed by the reality that around 400,000 people are without a healthy place to live and that homelessness has continued to increase despite years of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in our country,” the declaration states.