We’ve all encountered them, tripped over them on the sidewalk, heard them at night in Nelson Park. Youth with nowhere to go, nothing much to do. Some live on the streets-and about 35 percent of those identify as queer.
Kids on the street and kids with personal challenges have been coming to the West End in increasing numbers the last couple of years. When the Davie Village Business Improvement Association (BIA) surveyed them last year, they found that a large minority identified themselves as queer, and most said they felt safer on the street in the West End.
Local agencies have responded to that trend by creating safe spaces for youth in the West End, including the Dusk to Dawn youth drop-in at St Paul’s Hospital and another facility at 1065 Seymour. Now, after Family Services of Greater Vancouver studied 12 different sites, they concluded they should consolidate West End youth programs under one umbrella and locate it at 1134 Burrard St near Davie.
You’d think that kind of common-sense move would meet with community approval.
But that clearly wasn’t so at a public meeting I checked out Sep 29. Vile and histrionic comments dominated the proceedings. As city staff and Family Services workers tried to explain the project, the hall was filled with frequent loud and rude interruptions. People shouted-yes, shouted-that young people didn’t belong west of Granville St.
“Send them where they belong,” suggested one person. And where would that be? There are already youth facilities in three other districts of Vancouver, including the Eastside.
When an audience member tried to make a point in favour of the facility, someone shouted, “Shut up!”
So why were people angry? Some of it was legitimate; it seems city hall and Family Services botched the neighbourhood notification process.
But as the evening dragged on, it became clear that much of the opposition stems from a suspicion that nearby property values may not rise as quickly if the youth centre goes ahead. Open and honest greed reared its ugly head at last (unanswered was the matter of the long-term impacts on property values if we don’t solve our problems on the street).
A couple of brave souls raised their heads above the noise to say they were embarrassed by how their neighbours were behaving. They were yelled at, of course.
Most troubling about the evening was that much of the opposition was coming from people of colour, gay men and people with Eastern European accents. You’d think these people, after what they’ve gone through in life, would be more empathic towards others who need a break.
But all was not lost.
Randy Atkinson, president of the Davie Village BIA, rose at the end to say his piece. Atkinson co-owns nearby businesses and lives within a few hundred metres of the proposal. And yet, he supports it. Youth are on our streets, in our West End, he said. We cannot try to sweep them away.
“We need to ask why those kids are there. We need more services for them. This proposal is critical. We must not say, ‘go away,’ but say, ‘how can we help you?’ We need to help those unable to help themselves. Multiple levels of services are needed for kids at risk. We need new programs.”
By now, some people were screaming at him.
Atkinson pressed on. “I’m no different than any of you, but I’m bloody ashamed at how people are acting.
“We need [the youth facility] in our neighbourhood. The kids are here, period. We need to be responsive.”
Magnificent. That’s the kind of responsible citizen input that I’d like to think queers can bring to public policy. There are a few things that need working out-for example, levels of supervision, all-night hours, special programs for the gay youth-but city hall should indeed locate the youth centre at 1134 Burrard St.
The proposal is a partial solution to the youth on the streets. It’s about dealing with an existing problem, not creating a new one. We, as a community, need to reach out to these kids. After all, many of them are ours. And, after all, it there but for the grace of luck go you!
Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.