by Alex Butler and Kevin Mills
After dumping manure on a site frequented by Abbotsford’s homeless residents, the city has received a “tsunami” of calls and emails, questioning how the incident occurred.
City manager George Murray, who has issued a statement assuming responsibility for the incident, told The News in an exclusive interview on Friday, that he knows who was responsible for the act, but will not disclose details.
On Tuesday, city workers dumped chicken dung on a small area on the side of Gladys Avenue across from the Salvation Army, a common site for homeless people to gather and sleep, and known by some as “The Happy Tree.” The controversial initiative has attracted international media attention and widespread criticism, with homeless advocates saying it was an attempt to drive people from the area.
“We’re slowly peeling back the layers of the decision-making process,” Murray said.
He confirmed it was city crews who dumped the manure, but would not say which department. He said the city is currently aware of the majority of people who played a role.
Murray said he will not publicly disclose the information, as the responsibility for the decision lies with management.
“If you’re looking for who is responsible, ultimately, that’s me.”
He said the issue will be dealt with internally, and it may, or may not, have personnel ramifications. He said many staff members have willingly explained their role.
Director of communications Katherine Jeffcoatt said the city’s normal protocol for dealing with issues of homelessness were not followed.
“There is a collaborative process, and this took place outside of that collaborative process. We skipped some steps with our community partners.”
Murray said the city was flooded with phone calls and emails from people in Abbotsford and outside of the community. He said he has been personally responding to many calls, and will continue to respond to concerns. He said this issue should not detract from the good work done by the city’s staff.
“We’ve learned from this. We’re going to move forward from this.”
On Thursday, Mayor Bruce Banman held a press conference, apologizing on behalf of the city.
James Breckenridge, a local advocate for the homeless, said it does not matter who made the decision, as the incident is indicative of the city’s attitude towards the homeless.
He said the move comes in the wake of increased efforts to displace the homeless in Abbotsford, saying that more people were on Gladys Avenue than usual, due to recently being moved out of camps in other areas in the city.
“It’s like they are hunting the camps down.”
Jesse Wegenast, a minister with 5 and 2 Ministries who works with the homeless, called the incident “unbelievable.”
He said that many of the people who gather at the site are not welcome at the Salvation Army, and are the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“When you have nowhere else to go, you end up at The Happy Tree,” said Wegenast.
On Friday, a spokesperson for the Salvation Army in Abbotsford says they just want to “move forward” from the issue.
Deb Lowell said the organization has been inundated with calls from across the country.
“We’re busy looking after the folks that were displaced and the folks that come to us for service every day, whoever that might be. And that’s what we need to focus on and concern ourselves with doing. And we want to try and work together with different stakeholders, including the city, to make good decisions, healthy and safe decisions, not only for our client population but everyone in our community.”
She said while the Salvation Army does help the city to be aware of the “issues out here,” as do other groups, the organization operates under its own mandate, as it has for 130 years.
When the incident occurred, Lowell said staff members at the Sally Ann moved quickly.
“Being right across the street, we became quickly aware that it was happening and our staff was on site immediately.”
She said all the homeless impacted by the dumping were offered laundry services, shower facilities, meal service and medical support. Shelter was also made available.
“At the end of the day, some of those folks took advantage of a few of those things, but not everything. And only one took advantage of shelter for one night,” said Lowell.
She explained that some homeless people choose not to accept help or shelter and that choice has to be respected. The Salvation Army does have an outreach team that works with those who choose to remain on the streets. She said it’s difficult to put a number on how many people are helped.
“It’s fair to say hundreds a day, the lives we touch. I know our meal centre alone serves over 200 people a day.”
Lowell did not want to comment further on the incident.
“We’re just interested in moving forward and looking after the people we’re caring for with dignity and respect, that’s what we’re about doing.”