The residents of Terwillegar Towne are frightened and angry.

They are frightened and angry because a 60-unit, housing-for-homeless development is to be built in their community.

It is common for neighbourhoods to rise up against development. But communities are most upset when “non-market” housing is proposed for the neighbourhood.

What does this say about us? And I mean ‘us’ and not them, the residents of Terwillegar Towne. I refuse to define them as different, let alone lesser or worse.

I hear people tut-tutting about comments made by the folks of Terwillegar Towne. But I assure you, the same thing has happened countless times, all over Edmonton.

The result is that non-market housing tended to end up in communities with fewer resources and a diminished capacity to fight City Hall.

Meaning, it ended up in communities with fewer resources and a diminished capacity to be of help to the people living in the housing developments.

What I wish for the people of Terwillegar Towne is that they turn their feelings around. That they halt their opposition and instead offer to get involved with the development.

Being involved will allow Towne folk to ensure their interests are protected. Chances are, their hearts will open and Terwillegar Towne will grow into a true community.

Such things do happen. It once happened in neighbourhood of Sherbrooke. I saw it and I was blown away with Sherbrooke’s capacity for compassion.

The column I wrote about it, for The Edmonton Journal, is below.

A small corner of society puts out the welcome mat for everyone

Edmonton Journal
Wed Dec 3 2008
Column: Scott McKeen

This is not a fairy tale. Nor is it fiction.

Yet I’d be skeptical, too, had I not seen it with my own eyes. This is the age of entitlement and complaint, no?

Yet Monday evening, inside a vintage north-end community hall, a few good men and woman stood up to vanquish the devil NIMBY and welcome dark strangers into their midst. No, really. True story. I was there.

In fact, I got there early. Only a small crowd was gathered at the Sherbrooke Community Hall when I drove up. Not a happy crowd, though. I heard one man say to the others: “Did you hear about that drug house?”

His reference was not to a criminal base, but a new group home in Sherbrooke established earlier this month by the George Spady Centre.

The Spady, as its known, is an inner-city shelter and detox centre for addicted men and women. The facility in Sherbrooke will allow addicts and alcoholics in early recovery to stay in a supportive place, away from their old haunts and temptations, until they can get into residential treatment.

Spady staff say the clients — some on AISH, some unemployed, some homeless — are carefully screened. Once accepted into the Sherbrooke home, they must sign in and out, mostly to go to 12-step meetings or day programs.

Upon their return, they must then provide proof they attended their appointments. The house is staffed round-the-clock and residents are kept to an 8 p.m. curfew. Alarms are set to alert staff to anyone trying to leave without permission.

The house and yard are well-maintained. Walks will be shovelled. Christmas lights are going up. And clients must enter and leave by the back door to ensure a low profile.

Despite all this, the crowd Monday appeared, at least at first, unmoved by facts and assurances.

“If these men go out into the community and come back intoxicated or on drugs, it could put the kids of the community at danger,” said one woman.

“Let’s face it, some of these people are going to be criminals,” said another.

“They can have it their neighbourhood, not mine,” added a man. “The value of our property is going to go down the tubes.”

Let me say that none of this was unusual. NIMBY — not in my backyard — is a common reflex to the threat of change in community. Not a good one. But a human one.

Two police officers were on hand Monday evening — Sgt. Duane Hunter and the area’s community liaison constable, Tricia Gagne. They assured the group the Spady house posed no real risk. City Coun. Kim Krushell and the area’s MLA, Doug Elniski, also tried to calm the crowd. It didn’t work.

“We don’t want it in our neighbourhood, don’t you hear that?” yelled the most vocal opponent.

Then community league volunteer Peter Keegan put his hand up to speak. The CN worker said he’d lived in Sherbrooke for years and couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Not everyone in this community is against this,” he said. “I see this as a chance to help these people out. We can’t just flush them down the toilet. These are human beings.”

“Have they done anything yet?” asked Kim Adonyi, following up on Keegan’s thoughts. “Until there is an issue, why condemn them? They’re trying to get their lives back in order. Your children are not in danger.”

Then Jackie Costello spoke: “My grandfather helped build this community hall. I’ve listened to these people from the George Spady and I have no concerns. I am concerned about crime, but we had crime here before they came.”

Finally, Sherbrooke Community League president Brad Smith, who chaired the meeting, closed the debate.

“I think the greatest risk to our communities is in not treating drug addicts,” he began. “Organizations like George Spady are helping to make people better. That makes our society better. So that makes us safer. I’m glad there are organization like this.

“But it’s also up to us as a community to take ownership of these issues. We are a community. We don’t believe in sending our problems off to someone else. So I’m quite happy that George Spady has come into this neighbourhood.”

The room quieted. Smith moved the meeting on to other business. And I walked out feeling a bit dizzy.

Grace exists in the world. Civilization is not in ruin. There is good — no, greatness — in people. There’s no denying it. I saw it with my own eyes.