It has been a few weeks since I’ve blogged. Please accept my apologies. It’s been a very draining and rather difficult few weeks. Some of you would have seen / heard the grilling I received on Cabin Radio yesterday and might be wondering what that was all about and whether Vineyard has ‘lost its heart for the poor.’ By no means…may God forbid it that we ever do! The article, and the resultant online responses, were horribly skewed away from what was said, or intended by me. I wrote a letter to the Minister, MLA’s, Councillors and the Mayor of the city. I did not send it to Cabin radio at all, but they accessed it (it is there as public record once it’s written) took a carefully selected quote out of context to suit their agenda and… the rest is history.
I take the grilling on the chin and choose not to interact with sensationalistic or false claims. Once you put your name to something what is done with it is beyond your control. However, since YKVC has been implicated in my personal correspondence, I feel I do need to copy the full letter in today’s blog with sincere apologies to you all. I am not without blame here since I should not have mentioned my vocation at all. It implicated all of you, for which I apologise unreservedly. I should, in hindsight, just have written without reference to my vocation. For your information and clarity then, the full letter follows:
Dear Minister Green, MLA’s, Mayor and all Councillors,
Although I am the Senior Pastor of Yellowknife Vineyard Church (YKVC), I am writing in my personal capacity since church members might not all see the issue at hand in the same way.
Personally, I am deeply concerned with the proposal to locate the Temporary Day Shelter (TDS) at the corner of 48th Street and Franklin Avenue.
The Church of Jesus Christ believes that God has a preferential option for the poor. As such, the poor are always uppermost in our minds, our prayers and indeed our care. However, I feel that we cannot be asked to pit our care for the poor against the well-being and legitimate concerns of the businesses surrounding the proposed location.
In this case I think most specifically of the Breakaway Fitness Gym, Discovery Inn, the Art Gallery housed in the Discovery Inn and the Red Apple Restaurant. All whose patrons (if experience is anything to go by) will be harassed to the extent that their clientele might well take their patronage elsewhere resulting in the ultimate demise of the very businesses that uphold the economy of the city.
In early 2020, YKVC had put in a bid to purchase the bowling alley in the city. I was in conversation with your offices about the GNWT renting the premises that formerly housed Thornton’s Restaurant from YKVC for the location of the Day Shelter. The rental was of course subject to YKVC being successful in our bid to buy the bowling alley. This would have seen something of a partnership between church and government, which could have been very healthy.
Your offices -in what I can only assume was a politically expedient communication? - effectively announced through the lead article on the front page of the Yellowknifer that the TDS would be moving to the city bowling alley. In effect, a public statement was issued whilst your offices knew that YKVC’s offer to purchase was pending. Ultimately YKVC’s offer to purchase was declined and I duly notified your offices of the same.
It is not that the churches do not want to help or assist in the situation. They most certainly do want to help. However, I suspect that most would be unwilling to be implicated in announcements and moves that seem to be based in political expediency rather than co-equal and transparent cooperation. The GNWT, in the instance mentioned, acted in a way that I had to distance myself and the church I happen to pastor from. The action you took damaged the trust levels required for future co-equal cooperation for the benefit of the city.
I have it on good authority that other churches too have offered various possibilities for consideration by GNWT but have been declined. I understand that GNWT has certain criteria that need to be met for a TDS. What the churches have offered might well not have complied with your requirements and might have legitimate restrictions to housing a TDS. That much is understood.
What I fail to understand, is that government seems to posit itself as the only party who cares, and that residents, business and the church are not assisting in any material way. That would be a patently false assumption. The current problems do seem to have been created by the GNWT and to now offer the solution to the problem, which positions government as the party resolving the ‘problem’ is again (from my vantage point) based in political posturing.
Personally, I want to assist in every way that is possible to do so. But not where one sector of society is ‘pitted against another’ in a no-win situation and, most certainly not where I, or the church I pastor are implicated in what could be perceived as political manoeuvring.
I am urging the GNWT to consider steps that would address the crisis of the homeless in our city in a sustainable and generally beneficial way. A good city is one where Government, Civil Society, Business, and the Church cooperate in a way that satisfies all parties. In the case of the TDS a permanent solution is not only warranted, but long overdue.
Having a “temporary” shelter in and of itself indicates something of a misnomer. The proposal by GNWT does not offer any permanent solution. Temporary decisions do not result in temporary effects on surrounding business and other neighbours. The effects of temporary decisions tend to be longer lasting.
More permanent solutions that do not place an unfair burden on neighbours can and ought to be found. I suggest that the courteous way of doing that, would be to consult the neighbouring businesses and other parties prior to announcing intention.
Restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and gyms are struggling to meet expenses following 18 months of COVID related legislation and restriction. Many are running at a loss and struggling to remain open. The proposed location of the Day Shelter puts businesses right on the doorstep of the homeless. It is highly likely that businesses will not survive the negative impact this is most certain to have on their viability.
Previous Good Neighbour Agreements seem to have failed because the GNWT did not properly consult key stakeholders. I am concerned that the same issues that hampered businesses in previous Day Shelter locations will once again negatively impact the businesses surrounding the current suggested location of Aurora Village. There are indubitable implications that the proposed location of the Day Shelter will have on surrounding businesses. The city’s history shows evidence that this is indeed so.
In short, my concerns and complaints regarding process are; the absence of prior consultation with business owners and other organizations in the surrounding area, a potential loss of business due to patron harassment, legitimate fears for the safety of staff employed by local business, general pollution and refuse dumping, increased on-street street violence and sanitary considerations during COVID, the possibility of increased security costs to business and a lack consideration of more suitable locations that have a minimal impact on local business.
Beyond the concerns I list above: As a local pastor I find myself in the extremely uncomfortable ‘no win’ situation of having to choose between the well-being of the poor and the well-being of existing business. It is an impossible choice for me to make, which has resulted in me having to write in my personal capacity rather than on behalf of the church I pastor. I cannot, with integrity, speak collectively for individuals from amongst the people who are under my spiritual care.
For me, the result of the way that the GNWT has gone about this process has been divisive. It forces polarization right from inception – those who are ‘for the poor’ and those who are ‘for business.’ That is to put it bluntly, an extremely false dichotomy and one I should not be having to choose between. The well-being of the poor in the city is ultimately dependent on the well-being of the business that upholds the city economically. To pit them against one another is unethical at best. It seems to me that pitting the poor, business, residents, and the church against one another, instead of consulting broadly to find a solution more acceptable to all is the modus operandi I have come to expect of GNWT in three short years in Yellowknife. The a-priori decision and approach taken by the GNWT to locate the Day Shelter at the proposed location all but ignores the impact the shelter will have on surrounding organizations. That the vulnerable need to be housed is from my perspective not debatable. I am confident that the church I pastor will support all proposed solutions that are effective and have low impact on business.
Should your current proposal (despite my personal reservations) be approved and move to implementation, I think I can speak for the church, in that YKVC will by all means help to keep the streets tidy, free from violence and indeed would likely have volunteers working at the shelter as they have had in the past. If it comes to this, I know the hearts of the people I have the privilege of caring for. And I know that they will assist in every and any way that they can.
However, it is my conviction that these are not appropriate premises for a TDS. The GNWT tends to treat symptom rather than cause. The housing of the homeless is a crisis that needs a sustainable solution. I think it is radically counterproductive to propose a solution that resolves problems for some, but simultaneously creates problems for many others. My understanding is that business and church has always supported causes in the city. This despite the generally non-consultative approach of the GNWT.
Surely a Minister who is honestly concerned about fostering a collaborative approach in resolving issues that affect us all would consult all parties affected by the location of the TDS before proposing what appears to be a unilateral decision? Surely any consideration of good neighbourliness would require this as the absolute minimum courtesy. I urge the City Councillors to decline the motion to open the Day Shelter in the proposed location until a better, more sustainable long-term solution, is proposed. A solution that is to the satisfaction of all concerned parties. I recommend that the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce and NWT Chamber of Commerce unanimously reject the proposed location of the TDS, which I regard as detrimental to business and other neighbours.
I reiterate that I am unable to communicate on behalf of YKVC and communicate all the above in my personal capacity.
Melt W. van der Spuy (Rev)
MTh (Stellenbosch) DMin (Fuller Seminary)