Calgary and the Stigmatization of Poverty, Bodies, and Spaces

My heart hurts. It hurts from reading this article:

As an advocate for affordable and accessible housing, as a person who has had their life touched by people who are homelessness and precariously housed, as an urban issues nerd, and as a compassionate human… this was an emotional read for me. This short article compelled me to pen this blog post… Brace yourselves, folks. This is a long one.

Quick Synopsis:

Members of the Shaganappi community in Calgary, Alberta are upset that an affordable housing complex which uses the Housing First model is being built in their community. After an open house for the “proposed project”, a group of Shaganappi residents felt compelled to form a committee and start a petition to stop this housing complex from being built. The leader of the pack, Shaundra Carvey, states the reason for the community uproar revolves around safety.


Safety… that word… it has a very different meaning to everyone depending on your life experience and privilege. Allow me to illustrate this. I worked as a Community Safety Coordinator in an inner-city neighbourhood once nicknamed “Murder’s Half Acre”. The neighbourhood was gentrifying. Middle class families were buying up cheap old lots and dilapidated rooming houses to renovate and move their families in. As an individual with safety attached to their title, I heard it all. I got the well-off community members approaching me about unsupervised kids making them nervous or how graffiti had shown up on their back fence. Then, I heard from the lower income folks which was an interesting experience in itself. They never came to me about safety complaints, I always went to them. I had to seek them out in order to hear their stories of feeling unsafe. When I did, I heard things like “my brother was stabbed last night” or “my landlord came into my apartment while I was showering” and “I was robbed of my pay as you go phone and all the food in my cupboards by someone living in my rooming house”. I fixed door frames and installed deadbolt locks for people living in rooming houses who had none, while I painted a garage door of an especially vocal, middle-upper income couple which had been graffitied. I’m sure you can see the different life experiences and the very different ends of the safety concern continuum of these two groups.


Carvey wants to know “what measures would be in place to keep [her] community safe.” She says that the block where the proposed site could be erected has 17 children and a park. Carvey is “concerned about what could spill out into it” and that “the people that they were suggesting would live there would be those who had been chronically homeless, many with mental health concerns and also addiction issues.” As well, the committee of concerned residents are also dismayed that “[they] weren’t asked what [they] would like to go there…”

Let’s deconstruct what Carvey is saying here, or at least how I am interpreting it:

  • People exiting homelessness put her community at risk
  • People exiting homelessness are a particular risk to children
  • Parks are sacred spaces not to be contaminated by people living with mental illness and addiction
  • The community wants to define the “types of people” (and the types of lives those people live) that are allowed to live in their neighbourhood

We are witnessing stigmatization of people and place here. This type of stigma is called Socio-Spatial Stigmatization. It is a process whereby stigma attached to people both extends from and extends to the stigma associated with places (Takahashi, 1997; Smith, 2010). Socio-spatial stigma is often attached to the Not-In-My-Back-Yard phenomenon. A NIMBY-ist might say, “I want to end homelessness, but I don’t want to live next to it when we do.” NIMBY-ism has become increasingly prevalent with regard to harm reduction sites.

The residents are using their preconceived notions and judgements of who becomes homeless and their personal characteristics and extending those issues of morality to the space they will potentially occupy.

Housing complex=homeless people. Homeless people=crime. Crime=drugs. Drugs=…. The imagination of a parent in a moral panic can string on and on and on.

Opponents are positioning the housing complex and its potential clients as threats to the social body of Shaganappi, situating addiction, mental illness, and homelessness as a ‘pathology (out) of place’ in their “unique neighbourhood.” The contempt attached to people exiting homelessness results in perceptions of neighbourhood decline and devaluation, and heightened efforts by factions, such as Carvey and the Shaganappi residents, to enforce socio-spatial boundaries between the ‘pure’ and ‘polluted’ (Sibley, 1995). The community of Shaganappi being the pure. The abject body of the person exiting homelessness is cast as an agent of infection that threatens to sow disorder, deviance and disease throughout the social body of the ‘pure’ community.

There is anxiety around people they deem to be out of place. Even before they move in, the community is casting the people exiting homelessness as the ‘other’ and HomeSpace, the developer, and the enemy of their community’s status quo. However, a very interesting piece of this story is the fact that neither a program nor an agency has been chosen to occupy the building. All of this oppositional action sprung from an open house where the phrase ‘harm reduction’ was used (which in all honestly, needs to be used in order to obtain federal funding). The residents understand ‘harm reduction’ as something inherently detrimental to the way of life in their community. They immediately associate the model with a population that will pollute their spaces and make assumptions as to the impact on their community. If Carvey were to think critically about a harm reduction housing program versus dry housing program, she may realize a harm reduction site is in her community’s best interest. In a dry building, using alcohol and other drugs (AOD) is forbidden and an eviction is imminent. Thus, should a resident feel the need to use, they will take that behaviour elsewhere- perhaps to the sacred park of which Carvey speaks. With a harm reduction program, AOD use in the building is permitted. This type of program can contain the behaviour and keep the 17 children on the street away from whatever it is that Carvey fears.

Now, some people might think… “what is wrong with these people? Don’t they care about ending homelessness? Do they not have compassion for their fellow, vulnerable human?” I can’t speak for Carvey or the other community members rallying behind her cause, but… I’m sure if you had a conversation with them they would say that yes, they absolutely do care deeply about ending homelessness and no one should live on the street. I have no doubt these people have empathy and compassion in the right circumstances. However, the current circumstance is a moral panic, fear of properties being devalued, fear of interaction with people who are different than they, fear of their children witnessing something they deem to be immoral, and so on. If you read the article, the argument isn’t entirely rational.

Other people might say… “People are allowed to protect their families and not want undesirables in their neighbourhood.” That’s true. I would not deny anyone’s right to feel safe. But, there is not yet a threat to be concerned about. The building hardly has a plan and is two years off from construction. Also, isn’t it ironic that Carvey is building barriers to feeling safe for the vulnerable people who could be granted the life-changing opportunity to live in this new building?

Unfortunately, this story is not unique to Calgary or to any other place in the country. The stigmatization of persons and places are indicative of community rejection and organized resistance to low income people and/or housing. We can hear this type of stigma when people talk about Forest Lawn- “Don’t go there after dark unless you want to get stabbed.” We are making assumptions of the type of people who live there and how the community functions because of the people who live there.

By othering new residents, there is already a divide which tells them “you don’t belong here”. How can you, as a new resident and a person exiting homelessness, absorb that message and feel good about investing in your community? I don’t think you can. It could end up a bit like the Broken Window Theory- the community already hates you and treats you with disrespect, so why invest and be respectful of it? So, Miss Carvey and friends, you may be causing more harm to your community than you think by campaigning against and othering a population in need of our support and assistance in being socially included. We need to open our minds to the possibility that people who have experienced homelessness are not in anyway different than ourselves. They deserve respect, a supportive community, and a place to call home just as much as the 17 children and the parents on that street do.


Informed by:
Sibley, 1995
Smith, 2010
Takahashi, 1997