‘Not in My Backyard’: How NIMBYism impacts access to vital support services

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The Thunder Women Healing Lodge Society won approval last month to build a healing lodge in Scarborough for Indigenous women on parole or probation. Two staff with expertise in addictions and trauma will be on call 24-7.

The process wasn’t without controversy.

Some local residents weren’t shy in voicing their displeasure, acknowledging the need to support Indigenous women in their recovery — a need highlighted in the MMIWG inquiry’s damning final report — but worrying nonetheless about the prospect of that recovery happening in their own community.

While such comments are “painful,” the society’s president Patti Pettigrew told Global News she’s focusing on the future: “Sometimes things take time and you have to show people they have nothing to fear, and that’s what we’ll do.”

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Still, this isn’t the first time a proposed support facility, or even an already operational one, has been hit with complaints from neighbours. There’s even a term for when people say they support the aims of such a centre, they just don’t want it close to home: “Not in My Backyard” — NIMBYism.

NIMBYism has the ability to impact access to addiction, recovery and other harm reduction services at a time when those issues are top of mind for many Canadians struggling under the weight of the country’s opioid crisis. So how do you balance harm reduction needs and people’s concerns about having those services close to home?

Start with what people are worried about, says Scott Bernstein, director of policy for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

“Their fears are legitimate because they feel them but they’re also not necessarily grounded in evidence,” he says, “There’s a gap in understanding… in some ways their ideas are based on myths and stigma and misinformation.”

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Bernstein used to work as a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, where they spent a considerable amount of time “engaging in strategic litigation on behalf of drug users.” After the Insite supervised injection site in Vancouver opened, neighbouring communities amended zoning bylaws to prevent similar sites from popping up in their cities.

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Pivot wound up suing Abbotsford in 2013 to try to overturn the 2005 bylaw, citing higher-than-average rates of hepatitis and HIV in the region. In 2014, councillors voted to remove it — clearing the way for local health officials to provide drug users with clean needles.

That battle wasn’t unique to Abbotsford, Bernstein says. He co-authored a 2013 paper in the International Journal of Drug Policy outlining the way a growing number of municipalities were employing similar zoning tactics.

“In many cases, these municipal restrictions on access to methadone and harm reduction services are an acquiescence to ‘Not in My Backyard’ (NIMBY) organized community opposition,” he wrote.

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In Mission, B.C., his report describes the support letters for a zoning amendment that would block a new pharmacy from dispensing methadone — used to treat opioid addiction — on the basis it would attract “the wrong type of people.”

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And yet, Bernstein wrote, “communities are rarely unanimous in their estimation of whether a particular service or land use decision contributes or detracts from safety, morals, or general welfare. In that context, the needs of marginalized community members may be undermined if zoning powers are used to deny access to necessary social and health services.”

That vocal pushback continues now, Bernstein says.

“It’s human nature. The naysayers and the people opposed to it are more likely to organize, more likely to be vocal in opposition.”

The Bruce Oake Recovery Centre has been grappling with that for years now. The centre, which wants to set up a 50-bed facility to provide long-term treatment for men suffering from addiction in Winnipeg’s Sturgeon Creek area, has faced fierce opposition from local residents. The councillor leading the opposition has done so on the basis of safety concerns and property values, suggesting the centre pick a more rural or industrial area.

Earlier this year, the city denied an appeal trying to stop the centre, clearing the path forward. That’s good news, University of Winnipeg professor Jino Distasio told Global News at the time.

“We know in this city and a lot of cities addiction is a huge issue. Opioids, fentanyl and any kind of drug is hurting our community,” Distasio said.

“We need beds available for people to heal and the challenge is where to put these facilities.”

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The 2005 “Stigma and Discrimination” issue of the B.C.-based Visions Journal explored the “clash” between the need for “a safe, stable and supportive housing environment” for recovery and community concern over how people who are in recovery will impact their neighbourhoods.

It outlined ways in which people trying to establish harm reduction and recovery services can combat the NIMBY mentality: involving the community, highlighting facts and figures, selling the idea of a user-run facility being proactive, and providing clear lines of communication for people to address their concerns.

Ultimately, if you want to find a way through to people who say they support addiction and harm reduction services just not in their neighbourhood, Dr. Shimi Kang says you should start with empathy and curiosity.

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Don’t assume you know what their concerns are, says Kang, an addictions psychiatrist and best-selling author. Some issues, like parking, noise or garbage delivery, can be easily solved, she says, while others prove tougher.

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“Probably the biggest barrier is the fear and stigma of having people with mental health and addictions in your community.”

That stigma is how “people end up arguing against services that could ultimately help solve some of the problems they’re seeing and help their overall community situation,” says Bernstein. He sees a lot of concern over dirty needles in the park, people just hanging around.

“In their minds they’re connecting dots between this service in place and creating increased public disorder when we know the evidence really shows harm reduction facilities help reduce public disorder, they help increase public safety.”

But while there is a real need to engaging communities to address stigma, Bernstein says final decisions about where addictions and harm reduction support facilities go should rest with health experts.

“This is a healthcare decision that’s being made by experts in the field, it’s not a democratic decision,” he says, “If we want to put in a dialysis clinic, we don’t ask for a public poll on it, we look at health need and let experts say if there’s a demand for it.”
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Still, there has been some success with turning NIMBY into YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard). Bernstein remembers one proposal for a Vancouver housing shelter that was met with fierce opposition until they released short videos to the community introducing the people who would be living there and accessing its services, humanizing them.

That’s key, Kang says, especially from a harm reduction standpoint.

One in five Canadians experience mental illness or addiction in any given year, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and by the time Canadians turn 40, half will have had or have a mental illness.

“It’s everywhere around us, we really can’t escape it,” Kang says.

She’s empathetic about people’s concerns about garbage or noise or parking, but ultimately addiction is a societal issue that we need to tackle.

“In my experience people who are on the road to recovery are doing the very tough work of looking inward and building strength and character.”

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The recovery community itself is a really strong community that I think we can all learn a lot from,” Kang says.

That’s what Pettigrew, from the Thunder Women Healing Lodge Society, sees it. She’s doing her best to block out some of the more hurtful comments and persist with a lodge she knows will have a positive impact.

“This lodge will save lives and it will help make the community safer,” she says.

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