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Of Seeger, Squamish and social justice

United Church minister sees some hope for the homeless

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“That was the shaping of my upbringing,” he says, “what you could call working class British Columbian.”

O’Brien’s path to Squamish, which brought him to the United Church about three years ago, has seen him study in California and Alberta, teach in Ottawa and, in the early ’70s, approach the church for baptism, membership and candidacy for ministry — all in the same day. He now uses his appetite for study and ease with words to help out with the local homeless advocacy movement, much of which involves working with Squamish council.

“I’ve apologized to them for being a big-mouth, left-wing cleric,” he laughs, flicking one of his sizeable hands at the ceiling. “But, dammit, that’s what I am.”

As such, O’Brien explains Squamish’s homeless problem in economic terms. The gap between rich and poor is widening across the corridor, he says, and the high cost of living has people experiencing work-based lives that become simultaneously insular and regional. But not local.

“We have people who are so busy in their work life that they don’t even know what’s going on in their own town,” he says, referencing the significant portion of the workforce that commutes to Vancouver or Whistler. “And a lot of the new apartments that are going up are owned by landlords from Vancouver. And at this point, they’re probably not as involved in the community.”

As far as homelessness in Squamish is concerned, what’s going on is basically this: Surveys done by local volunteers peg the district’s homeless population at around 100; there is no permanent shelter in the area, only an emergency shelter with 10 beds; that same shelter is regularly open as a drop-in centre; the country has been without a national housing act since 1998; the district’s affordable housing policy, which is a work in progress, won’t have any impact on the utterly destitute because it prices stock not based on a percentage of income, but on that of the local market, which is currently exorbitant.

“You’re talking about a market place that for many people means having two or three or four jobs just to be able to live,” he says. “It rips our guts out spiritually. All we have is this market relationship with one another.”

O’Brien doesn’t like Squamish’s affordable housing strategy for that very reason, but he realizes council can only do so much. What’s needed is support from senior governments, and much attention needs to be drawn in the run-up to the 2010 Olympics, when problems like Squamish’s threaten international embarrassment.

He does like the district’s plan for downtown. The vision of mixed-use buildings — residential, commercial and professional — combined with increased street life could remedy the problem posed by disconnected locals. All of a sudden people are immersed in their community again, and the social ailments it experiences are that much harder to ignore.