Natalie Joly is a Councillor for the City of St. Albert. Thank you, St. Albert, for your support.

Inclusivity: Neighbourhoods and the Subdivision Appeal Board

Yesterday, I attended the St Albert Subdivision Appeal Board Meeting because I heard through the grapevine that another group home, one for six children, was facing an appeal by neighbours. The last time such an appeal was heard, concerned residents spoke passionately about the possible criminality associated with group homes, and other myths were perpetuated about disabled adults living in a residential community.

The hearing yesterday saw concerned neighbours speak of the possibility of "rapists", "drug dealers", or "drunks" moving in. They suggested the staff could be unqualified, and that the group home owner was inviting unqualified and possibly dangerous strangers to volunteer with the minors being placed. There was fear that shift changes for the 24/7 staff would ruin the character of the neighbourhood, and that the added traffic would cause a serious fatality risk for the children on the street. They said their children were being put in harm's way. One of the neighbours offered to find a better location, away from their street, not in *their* neighbourhood. The fear of having these children move in to the community was real.*

Then the supporters of the home spoke.

When the group home operator spoke, he detailed his extensive experience working with children in the custody of the province due to abuse and neglect. He explained that staff are vetted for work with vulnerable children. He explained the provincial requirements for operating a group home and the oversight that is provided. He described the six sibling, babies up to seven years old, who were apprehended due to neglect and separated into different homes. He explained that the province had approached him to offer a home where they could be united, and where they could have a community, and access to the services they need to recover and thrive.

After him, an absolute gem of a neighbour spoke passionately about the need to welcome these children and the staff into their community. A social worker who works with at-risk children, she described the situations that these types of children are removed from, and the need to show compassion and kindness. She described the passion of the people who care for these children and the need for inclusiveness. After her plea, she was shaking. She was incredibly brave to stand up in a sea of neighbours opposing the home.

I hadn't planned on speaking, but I felt the need to show support for the handful of people who were dispelling myths about group homes and disability. I had very little to say regarding the land use bylaw, which outlines the only reasons for considering accepting the appeal, and the only bylaw concerns - parking and traffic - had already easily been addressed by describing the staff requirements (2 daytime staff) and available parking (3-car garage + driveway). So I spoke about the fact that increased needs and disability is not the same as criminality. I spoke about my friend, an experienced foster parent, who might have up to 6 teenagers in her St Albert home at one time. I spoke of the need for inclusion and kindness.

Ultimately, the SDAB made their decision based on facts, and on requirements of the land use bylaw. Group homes are an allowed use, they are not classified as a business, and traffic concerns were adequately addressed for this particular location and licence.

This morning, I gave my 7-year-old, an overview of what was discussed. We talked about how some kids don't have parents, so they have special people who take care of them, even more special than her sister's dayhome. We talked about how some people are afraid of family situations or people that are different from their families. We talked about how it's important to be open minded and kind. These are her suggestions for making new neighbours feel welcome: 
1. Say hi to them and ask them their names. 
2. Make them cookies. 
3. Invite them to play.

So... I ask that you take the advice of my 7-year-old. Educate yourself. Show compassion. Be inclusive.

To City of St Albert: The SDAB agenda was not available anywhere online. Like the last time a contentious issue was before the board, there is no way for residents not within a certain distance of a property to know the details of the hearing prior to the event. If a group of us hadn't found out about the details of the hearing the day before, the sole neighbour in support of this home would have been alone. Our MLA could not have attended. And unless someone notifies the Gazette, they have no way of reporting these events unless a concerned resident notifies them of a particular issue. I challenge the city to improve transparency. Post these agendas online. Post presentations online. Ensure that the Gazette is provided copies of all agendas. Step up.

*The people who spoke against the home are obviously passionate people who care deeply about their community. During breaks, they were kind and thoughtful to those of us speaking in support. The social worker neighbour commented afterward that the person who was appealing the home was wonderful, and that they have been incredibly welcoming to her family. The fears shared are based on misinformation. These are caring people. The passion that they have is what makes me love St Albert.

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