Friday, 13 April 2012

Housing the homeless, and a word about compassion

Earlier this week I attended a groundbreaking for a new supportive housing development in downtown Vancouver.  The new project, which is being built on Burrard Street across from St. Paul’s Hospital, will provide 141 new housing units, 30 of which will be committed to youth under the age of 25, as well as support services for individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.  
The project will be operated by The Kettle Friendship Society, which will provide tenants with access to group and individual support, training on household management and meal preparation, and skills training in money management and community living.  The building will also be the home of Directions Youth Services Centre, run by Family Services of Greater Vancouver, which will also provide support services to youth.
This is a much needed facility and will provide much needed housing and support.
It’s a tribute to a remarkable, continuing partnership of the provincial government (which has provided capital construction and operating dollars), the City of Vancouver (which has provided land), and the StreetoHome Foundation, which, step by step, is breaking the cycle of homelessness in Vancouver.  
StreetoHome has committed over $26 million through this partnership to help build 950 new permanent, supportive homes on eight sites in Vancouver.  Housing for people on the street, or at risk of becoming homeless.  Dollars raised from business and community leaders to help us do more than manage homelessness, and instead, solve it.
This particular project is also supported by Canadian Western Bank and CIBC.  Yup.  Bankers, the ultimate 1 percenters, also helping make a difference in our community.
The groundbreaking ceremony, attended by Ministers Rich Coleman and Mary McNeil, as well as Mayor Gregor Robertson, was on Wednesday of this week.
I was honoured to have the opportunity to represent the StreetoHome Foundation at the ceremony.  It’s taken lots of work by lots of dedicated and selfless people over the past several years to move from a place where homelessness seemed like an utterly intractable problem to a place where real progress is being made.  The Burrard Street project is another important milestone on the journey.
I was a bit disappointed the next morning not to see any media coverage of the groundbreaking ceremony.  All told, the Burrard project represents a nearly $40 million investment in land, capital and operating dollars, and when it is up and running it will make a significant difference in the quality of life and prospects for some of our most vulenerable and disadvantaged citizens.  It is, I think, a good news story, and we could all use a bit more good news.
I was actually on the verge of writing a blog post to complain that the event had gone unreported, when a story finally appeared on The Province’s website late yesterday afternoon.  It’s a good story, by Andy Ivens.  Thank you Andy!
But then I read to the end of the story and into the online comments sections, and boy oh boy oh boy, did my good mood disappear in a hurry.  Here is some of what I found:
They should build this homeless shelter in Fort St John where there are JOBs but no homes.
Next, let's build a tunnel across the street into St. Paul's Hospital so we can cram their beds full of these fine upstanding citizens and make it less accessible for those of us that actually pay our taxes! Funny that these projects don't happen near VGH!
Re: joeforte
You took the words out of my mouth. This is exactly what mayor moonbeam promised. Makes me sick!!!!
Can I live on Burrard for free too? I get squat as a single working female. Maybe I should just not work and start popping out random kids and get a free place to live.
I want a free place to live; I want three square meals a day too!! I guess I gotta become a useless, degenerate, homeless to get these things.. maybe I'll get some of my tax dollars back.. homelessness is a choice. let them live with their choices.
People voted for Vision Vancouver and Mayor Gregor Robertson. Their Vision is bike lanes and luxury condos for the homeless paid by YOUR tax dollar. I didn't vote for Vision, but if you did, well, you get what you voted for.
The media has done the public a great disservice by coming up with the all inclusive and sexy for them term 'homeless'. With that one word they lump a dozen issues into one and only make any real solutions even more impossible. Druggies and punks aren't homeless they're just free loaders. Why should we give them anything except for a bust ticket out of town? Vancouver needs to stop being so accommodating - building this on prime real estate? At this cost? Just doesn't make sense.
This is it.

This is the most ignorant thing the prov has ever done.

An entire highrise given over to the drug infested criminally insane meth heads?..downtown in the most expensive real estate on Earth? This building will become the biggest crackhouse on the planet. It won't be me!

You think this will get the homeless off the streets??? Not a f*cking chance. Every single resident will still lie on the sidewalks begging for money smoking meth.
Except this time...they have a luxurious free condo to go back smoke more crack. All on top of free food.

Thanks Canada
Why is this being built on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver? The most expensive city on the planet and we're building a homeless shelter. How about building it somewhere a heck of a lot cheaper and shipping them there? Pay to retrain the lot of them and make them go to work and pay taxes. This is the dumbest idea yet.

I work my a$-s off in order to be able to afford a condo, in ABBOTSFORD!! And yet if I lived in a cardboard box downtown, I'd get a home here, paid for me! Excuse me??
Most of the time, I ignore this stuff.  I assume comments like these are written by people who had a bad day, drank a few too many rye-and-gingers, and decided to take out their frustration with the world on their keyboard.  
In other words, I hope that these are the views of the very few, not the many.  I hope that most people really do understand that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice, or the beach party that never ended, but is rather a hellhole which lies below the bottom rung of the ladder of life, where the most intractably marginalized members of our community are lost, struggling, and, too often, too far from hope or help to know how to find their way back.
Projects like Burrard Street, offering safe, stable and secure housing, services and supports, are the way back for at least some of those folks.  
It’s tragic to think that there are people in our community who don’t understand this.
There’s an email in my inbox from the Greater Vancouver Compassion Network.  I received it as one of the many folks who filled the auditorium at Gladstone Secondary on March 22 for two inspiring lectures by Karen Armstrong, one on the topic “What is Religion”, the other on her work in developing and promoting what is called the Charter for Compassion.  
The Charter for Compassion is a document which urges the all peoples to embrace the core value of compassion in their public and private lives.  Its text (you can find it on includes this passage:
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity.
Words to inspire, hard as they are to live by.
The GVCN (www. encourages all to adopt the Charter as individuals, and it hopes that someday Vancouver will become a compassionate city.  
The Burrard Street project is strong evidence that this is not just simply wishful thinking.  But those online comments still send a bit of a shiver down my spine.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Let's vary the Wills Variation Act

Awhile ago I posted several pieces on options and approaches to justice system reform that focus on process and structural changes.  Another way to alleviate some of the stress on the justice system is to reform laws which bring disputes to court that ought not to be there.  A good example of such a law is the Wills Variation Act, a legislative anomaly if ever there was one.
The Wills Variation Act (or WVA), as its name suggests, gives the court the power to rewrite your will.  If, in the court’s opinion, the will does not make “adequate provision for the proper maintenance and support of the testator’s spouse or children”, the court may, in its discretion, “order that the provision that it thinks adequate, just and equitable in the circumstances be made out of the testator’s estate for the spouse or children.”
Put more plainly, after you are dead, if one of your children or your spouse believes that you did not leave enough for them in your will, they may apply to court to ask for more.
As you can imagine, there have been lots of cases under this statute over the years (it was first enacted in 1920 as the Testator’s Family Maintenance Act), and the courts have developed tests for the circumstances in which it will exercise this power.  But the underlying question is whether this statute represents an unreasonable infringement of testamentary freedom.  Or to put it another way, why can’t you bequeath your property to anyone you want to?  After all, it’s your property.  Why should the state - through the courts - have the power to override your wishes?
One of the absurdities created by the WVA is this: a day before your death you can give all of your property away to anyone you like.  If you are angry that your children have not come to visit often enough, or, heaven forbid, you disagree with their politics, you can gather all of your worldly goods, and give them away on a street corner to anyone passing by.  Provided you are of otherwise sound mind, no court could stop you.
But once you have died, then even if you have asked the executor of your will to do the same thing, your spouse or children can contest the will, and invite the court to redistribute your property to them, even though it was your fervent desire that none of them get anything.
This is, as one of the WVA’s detractors once said, “a diluted and whimsical form of forced heirship.”

(Leopold Amighetti, The Law of Dependant’s Relief in British Columbia (Calgary: Thompson Professional Publishing, 1991) at 28, cited in Wills, Estates and Succession: A Modern Legal Framework, A report prepared for the British Columbia Law Institute by the Members of the Succession Law Reform Project, BCLI Report No. 45, June 2006)
The original principle underlying the WVA was to ensure that dependent spouses and children are not left destitute.  This principle has a great deal to commend it, whenever destitution would be the result of disinheritance.  Take, for example, the case of a child who, by reason of disability, is unable to support himself.  Rather than force him to claim social assistance, the statute gives him a right to ensure that he is provided for from his late parent’s assets.  The WVA thereby reduces the burden on the state of providing for those whose parents have the means to support them. 
That principle, however, has no application to an adult child perfectly capable of supporting himself.  
Different considerations may come into play for surviving spouses, given the general rule that family assets are equally owned by both spouses.  If all of the family assets are held in the name of the testator, a will which disinherits his spouse may leave her with nothing, even though she could have divorced him a week before his death and claimed half of those assets under the Family Relations Act.  In itself, this may be a good argument for allowing the WVA to continue to apply to spouses, at least in respect of family assets.  
But there is really no good basis for giving the court the power to rewrite a will in favour of a disinherited, but perfectly capable, adult child.
In most if not all other provinces in Canada, the equivalent legislation goes only so far as to apply to prevent destitution.  BC is, I believe, the only province where the court has the broad power to rewrite wills in all cases.
I am not arguing for the repeal of the WVA.  A simple amendment would narrow its focus to only those cases where there is a good case for it.  Isn’t it time to reform the Wills Variation Act?