Anglicans need to address the not-in-my-backyard resistance to housing those who are homeless, according to advocates. “The church has to be able to stick its chin out and say this is a justice issue,” says Rev. Bob Peel of St. Augustine’s in Edmonton.
IN EVERY MAJOR city in Canada, you can see people, huddled over grates, covered with sleeping bags, taking shelter in entrance ways to stay warm. The plight of the homeless is most troubling as winter comes to Canada, but it is a dangerous, precarious situation at any time. Sometimes those who lack affordable housing struggle in less visible ways, one rent cheque away from disaster.
Anglicans across the country are looking for ways to work for change. In November, Virginia Platt, a parishioner at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, was part of a group picketing a decommissioned military base in the city. The Right to Housing Coalition, of which the diocese of Rupert’s Land is a member, was protesting the fact that more than 100 houses on the base have remained empty for the past five years, costing $1.5 million per year to heat and maintain. The coalition is calling on the federal government to permit the houses to be used as transitional housing for families who lack affordable housing.
Rev. Bob Peel of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church in Edmonton says it’s important for Anglicans to get involved in housing issues. It doesn’t have to be picketing out in the streets, though. Encouraged by Bishop Jane Alexander’s focus on mission outside church walls, he and Rev. Rick Chapman of Edmonton’s Inner City Pastoral Ministry organized the Action to End Homelessness Symposium at All Saints’ Cathedral in Edmonton. The intention was to educate people in the diocese and to sow the seeds for further action to end homelessness.
Anne Smith, director and CEO of the United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, spoke about the need to debunk commonly held myths about homelessness. These include notions such as homelessness is a choice, that it has little impact on the neighbourhood and that the problem is too big and too expensive to solve.
Murray MacAdam, the social justice and advocacy consultant with the diocese of Toronto, told delegates about efforts to underscore the urgency of 130,000 households in Ontario that are on the waiting list for affordable housing. Archbishop Colin Johnson and the staff of All Saints’ Church, which serves many low-income people in downtown Toronto, met with Liberal MP Bob Rae to discuss housing strategy policy. The diocese has also posted a petition on its website in support of Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies’ private members bill calling for a national housing strategy. “We’ve activated a lot of Anglicans about the issues,” noted MacAdam.
“Housing first” was one of the clear messages that came out of the symposium, said Peel. People who are homeless need a safe, secure place to live before they can deal with other problems such as substance abuse, he added.
Government appears to be getting the message: the 10-year plans from the city of Edmonton as well as from the province of Alberta both call for housing first. In November, the federal government unveiled “At Home/Chez Soi,” a cross-Canada study of about 2,225 homeless people living with mental illness to determine whether or not recovery rates improve when people have housing.
The church has an important role to play on several fronts, Peel said. “People have been encouraged to address the myths of homelessness and debunk [them] with their congregations, [and]…in their conversations with others.”
Secondly, Anglicans need to address the not-in-my-backyard resistance that projects to house the homeless often face from neighbours, says Peel. This requires talking to people in the neighbourhood. “If we really are in mission mode, we have got to get outside our doors and into our community around the church,” says Peel.
On a political level, churches need to address the not-in-my-term-of-office effect when politicians pay lip service to an unpopular issue but don’t take action, says Peel. Instead of confronting politicians, he recommends engaging them. Despite reluctance on the part of clergy who “don’t see that as a call of the gospel,” Peel assured delegates that relationship-building and dialogue with politicians are important priorities.
At a national level, General Synod eco-justice co-ordinator Canon Maylanne Maybee is working with Anglicans and Lutherans who have banded together to encourage their bishops to work towards a stronger federal response on housing. How? By meeting with local Members of Parliament and frontline housing providers.
In Winnipeg, Bishop Don Philips of the Anglican diocese of Rupert’s Land moderated a group discussion in November. The group included Ruth Vince, executive director of Evangelical Lutheran Women, Joan Jarvis of the United Church Conference of Manitoba and Northwest Ontario, Pat Martin, the NDP MP for Winnipeg Centre, Anita Neville, Liberal MP for Winnipeg South Centre. (A Conservative MP was invited but was unable to attend.) Michael Savage, a Nova Scotia Liberal MP who is part of a standing committee reviewing the bill calling for a national housing strategy, was also there.
Two women, served by the St. Matthew’s Maryland Community Ministry, gave first-hand accounts of their struggle without affordable housing. St. Matthew’s Community Ministry is a partnership between St. Matthew’s Anglican Church and Winnipeg Presbytery of the United Church, and runs programs such as a drop-in resource centre.