(This post ranks high in web searches for ‘Woodwynn Farms’ and continues to be read several times each day. I just want to make it clear that I do not oppose the existence of the project, nor encourage you NOT to donate to the project. I wrote this simply to express why I am not jumping on the bandwagon and joining efforts to promote the project. Do I think they should get their approval to go ahead with this project? Sure. But that’s beside the point.)
Woodwynn Farms, the proposed therapeutic farming community for homeless people, has been in the news again lately, first with an announcement that they had to suspend operations, and now today, an announcement that a philanthropist had put forward $200,000 to spur community support.
I’ve been following the Woodwynn farms story since Richard LeBlanc started shopping his idea around the community. I even covered it for B Channel News, which I think I did very sympathetically. In reality,
For those not familiar with the project, Woodwynn Farms is a property in Central Saanich (Tsartlip Territory) that was purchased a few years back with $6 million dollars of donated money to help deal with homelessness.
I sat on the Committee to End Homelessness when Richard LeBlanc came and asked us for our support, and I held my tongue, as I have until now, because I guess I thought it was mean to criticize people who are working to help homeless people.
In reality, I’m not as excited about this project as most people.
I’ve done a lot of research on public opinion regarding solutions to homelessness, as part of the Temporary Autonomous Shelter Collective, and as a question for random people on the street while filming ‘Speaker’s Corner’. A popular suggestion, coming mostly from people who don’t want to see homelessness on their pretty Victorian streets, is to ship them away to a farm to do hard labour and get over their addictions.
This common sentiment is why, among hundreds of ideas that many of us have had, Richard LeBlanc was able to drop in out of nowhere, and without really consulting with people on the street and determining what they want, was able to raise $6 million dollars to purchase this huge farm.
Woodwynn Farms has been having trouble getting the zoning variances they need to house up to 100 people on the farm, mostly due to bullshit prejudices of alcoholic homeless people as a threat to public safety, even when under the strict control of psychologists and other ‘staff’. While Central Saanich council is a special breed of insane, and their criticisms are targeted at homeless people, my criticisms, which I share with many people on the street that I’ve talked to, is that it is not what we all want on the street. It’s what the average mean-spirited homeless hater wants, for us to be shipped away to some island or farm
to do hard labour and become productive members of society again.
As far as solutions to homelessness go, it is a solution from the end of the spectrum that perceives homelessness as a failing of the individual. Which is not to say that every program aimed at dealing with homelessness should address the systemic causes of homelessness, but personally I am not thrilled by approaches that don’t. That’s just me. I feel I must advocate for more approaches to homelessness that take into account the systemic causes because the general public is far too focused on the idea that it is strictly a matter of personal choice, or personal failure, and that in order to end homelessness, we must heal and teach homeless people to become productive members of society again.
I disagree that a program that can only ever help a small percentage of the homeless population can be considered to be such a major part of efforts to combat homelessness. I also doubt that Woodwynn Farms will ever be able to convince 100 people at a time from this area to hand their lives over to a bunch of upper-middle class ‘professionals’, charity workers, philanthropists and volunteers for up to a year of hard labour at a time, even if they do get their zoning.
I guess I have a little bit of a personal gripe, and that’s why I have held back for so long on this criticism. My personal gripe was that I’ve completely burnt myself out these last few years researching community-based solutions to homelessness that take into account not just the systemic causes, but more importantly the needs and wishes of those most affected by homelessness, and the people who have been working on this issue for so long. That Richard LeBlanc parachutes in out of nowhere and can raise $6 million for a project that nobody I’ve met on the street thought they wanted or needed, seems to be a slight hijacking of our movement. But that’s just me.
For the sake of protecting myself from libel here, I don’t think LeBlanc is a scammer looking to make a name for himself at the expense of homeless people. He’s not a cult leader, and he’s not in it for the money. I do believe he is a genuinely nice person trying to do a good thing, but it involves a certain kind of paternalism and Mother Theresaism that really turns my stomach, and I consider it quite condescending.
If and when the program is allowed to start there, and homeless people get to move in, they’ll be staying in dorm accommodation while LeBlanc lives in the big house by himself. I’m not one for hierarchy, and I prefer co-operative approaches that include participants in planning and decision making where everyone is treated as an equal, but I can’t fault LeBlanc for being part of an overwhelming status quo, I guess.
The board of directors does not include any homeless people, and lastly, they operate under this idea that in order to cure people they need to take them out of their comfort zones. I saw how this played out the day I went up there with some folks from the street. One of the guys, dying of cancer, was a diesel mechanic who had not worked for many years, but never stops talking about cars and engines. He discovered some old trucks on the property that he thought he could fix, and was begging to get wrenching on them. Instead, he was handed a shovel and told to fill in potholes in the driveway with gravel.
I guess I just believe that honouring a person’s gifts and encouraging them to do what they are good at is a helpful thing, but apparently not. I guess LeBlanc and I have a different idea of how to respect people’s dignity.
Call me an anarchist, but as homeless as I am and as much as I like farming, you’d need a court order to get me into that situation.