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This is what NIMBY sounds like

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NIMBY, the acronym for "Not In My Backyard," refers to people's objections to an unwanted development coming to their neighbourhood.

I call it discrimination. It's a vile form of speaking and acting fuelled by ignorance, fear and hate. NIMBY has been used for years against people of colour, people with disabilities, people with mental health issues, the LGBTQ community, various religious groups and people who are homeless.

The NIMBY homeless variety recently reared its ugly head in a Toronto City Hall committee room when members of a west-end community showed up in droves to express their views on the city's proposal to convert a former Goodwill building into a 100 bed men's shelter at 731 Runnymede.

As a street nurse, I'm used to seeing NIMBY attitudes when it comes to homelessness, but not quite like this. These folks had gotten increasingly agitated and nasty through the course of several volatile community information meetings.

A detailed city staff report recommends approval of the shelter site and confirms that the property meets the requirements of the 2003 Municipal Shelter By-law. Yet, local City Councillor Frances Nunziata supported the NIMBY views: "I am against the shelter proposed for 731 Runnymede because that location does not make sense." She cited lack of transit and community resources -- seemingly unaware that both do exist in her community.

For three hours I listened to the community's deputations and complaints. A few are well founded. I agree with them that the shelter capacity should be lower than 100. I agree that four men to a room in bunk beds is crowded and not healthy. I'm puzzled city staff is not inspired to create a best practice model for a shelter: one person per room that could set a new national health and safety standard.

But all the rest is pure NIMBY and this is what it sounds like (exact quotes are from deputations).

"I am upset to think that the worst of men will be a block down from where I live."

"I feel bullied" referencing the city's "shock and awe campaign" of holding community information meetings about the shelter.

The nearby park is "much too convenient" for the homeless men.

"Moving in 100 homeless men directly across the street from the family park will change the feeling at the park in a very bad way."

"100 men around here with no background checks would not be safe for children."

"Now women and children will need to walk past the shelter."

“How will we take our children to the splash pad when walking past a group of men?”

"Who is to say that these gentlemen will not harass our family and children? Our walks will no longer be done in peace. We will always be overlooking (sic) our shoulders."

"These people will spill out on Dundas. They'll be at the LCBO. We have a high school and two elementary schools in the immediate proximity. Soccer fields and hockey rinks. Places that children frequent. While I'm not suggesting that every homeless male is a pedophile or drug addict, just the perception is intimidating enough."

"An increase of homelessness to this area will attract alcoholism and drug abuse, something parents in this area struggle hard already to keep away from their children...I can only imagine what kind of detrimental influence this will have on our kids, especially in a day and age where parents really have less time to spend with their children." It's ironic that this deputant ended their rant by saying: "I do not want to see my neighbourhood become a breeding ground for all sorts of negativity."

"The small businesses will just close down over fear and the big ones will be packed with people that have not had the best of luck but have not even been checked to be freely roaming the family streets."

Homeless men hanging out at the Walmart will create a "toxic situation."

"If a Goodwill ran out of business in this area how can many people of lower-class come here?"

"Why would you warehouse human beings in a commercial and industrial area? That part of the street is so busy with cars, buses and people." 

The site is noisy and dangerous: "They (the homeless residents) could easily find themselves on the (CP) tracks and be injured or killed."

"How are these people supposed to get around?...There isn't proper public transportation."

"What are the homeless men at the shelter going to do when the TTC switches to Presto?"

"There are no hospitals, health centres or crisis centres nearby." "Our local police station has closed recently." "There are no food banks nearby."

What's the antidote to NIMBY? YIMBY refers to "Yes In My Backyard." To be sure there were several voices that spoke or wrote supporting the shelter. Longtime anti-poverty activist Mike Creek and registered nurse Leigh Chapman, who recently lost her brother who was homeless, sent in deputations. Mark Aston, the Executive Director of Fred Victor presented in person. City Councillors Joe Mihevc and Sarah Doucette showed polite leadership challenging the NIMBYers and moving motions for a compromise.

Toronto faces a homelessness disaster that has a very human toll. At the monthly Toronto Homeless Memorial in June, 11 names of men and women were added.

Shelter is a human right so I have to question the deafening silence from homeless health care providers, the researchers and the social service agencies and frontline workers that know first hand how desperately the city needs this shelter.

The good news is they still have a chance to do the right thing. The city council committee shamefully caved to the NIMBYers, which means we go through this all again at their September meeting.

The co-op housing movement has a campaign to fight homophobia that the homeless sector could learn from. The slogan is: "Hear it, Stop it."


Image credit: Cathy Crowe

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