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‘It’s a place where human dignity can be recaptured’: Plan for Greyhound site gains steam

Erica Hansen’s plan to turn Calgary’s Greyhound bus terminal into a large, multi-faceted central services area for the unhoused and those battling addiction, started as a design competition entry back in 2021.

Now, the idea is gaining traction.

A briefing note on the April 5, 2023 Infrastructure and Planning Committee agenda showed that the city’s model for future use of the Greyhound site must change.

It read there is still strong interest in the site but, “the approach most likely must change to a model whereby The City will invest in the site and recover its costs over time rather than the initial intention which was to garner an anchor tenant with the ability to invest capital in the site in exchange for a low or nominal rent.”

Hansen, who holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from UCalgary and is now working as a landscape designer with DIALOG in Calgary, said her initial project required choosing a hypothetical client not often included in design discourse, and a non-fictional location.

She chose people living unhoused and with addictions in Calgary and the Greyhound site for the design.  The premise of the project was to create a park space specifically for those experiencing homelessness instead of ways to keep them out.

“The Greyhound site, I feel like it’s just such an incredible opportunity because of its proximity to downtown,” she said.

What makes it particularly special, Hansen said, is that it has natural barriers that could help negate some of the social disorder impacts to the surrounding area. The Bow River sits to the north, CP Rail line to the south, 14 Street and the Shaw Millenium Park as a soft barrier in the east with Bow and Crowchild Trails in the west.

Building and park space come together

In 2018, after Greyhound ceased Western Canada operations, the Calgary terminal, nestled between Bow Trail and 9 Avenue SW in Calgary’s West Village, was closed.

It has sat largely vacant for the past five years while the city determines a potential use.

Hansen initially wanted just to use the area to the north and east of the actual Greyhound terminal building but expanded the scope after talking with other professionals. She approached medical professionals specializing in mental health and addiction.

“I thought that they were just going to laugh me off, this is crazy, this is going to become the most dangerous, most safe place ever,” she said.

“Actually, I got some positive feedback and talked about some precedents in other countries.”

Other countries have tested park spaces, she said, and while they became dangerous, they recognized the potential inroad for treatment. That’s where the building comes in, Hansen said.

“After talking with health and addictions specialists, it became apparent that having an inroad to treatment was essential if a place like this was going to work,” Hansen said.

“That’s where the building comes in.”

The proposed green space would have handwashing stations, showers, drinking water, seating fitness equipment, a community garden, charging stations and wi-fi, drug paraphernalia disposal, naloxone, peer support, campfire area, locked, dog allowed, and, of course, security.

Inside they would have treatment services, counselling, health care, laundry, housing services and more. The parking lot could include a modular home village, according to the plan.

What’s more, is the location is connected to walking paths and transit is nearby.

‘It’s a place where human dignity can be recaptured’: Dr. Sundberg

Dr. Kelly Sundberg, associate professor in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University said that providing a space like this is the first step to helping curb street-level crime in the city.

“It’s actually really quite simple. When our human dignity is lost, we don’t give a shit,” he said.

Dr. Sundberg said that quite often people living on the street feel discarded by society, and no longer accepted. They’re often on the street because they’ve suffered trauma and neglect in their homes. That transfers to trauma, neglect and discardment on the streets.

“When we give these people a shred of humanity back, it’s the first step toward removing the criminogenic forces at play,” he said.

“I personally believe the first step in crime prevention for a community or street level crime that’s perpetrated by people who are homeless or living rough is giving them some dignity.”

That dignity is in a warm shower, a place to convene, get a haircut, get help, or even having them see a dentist, Sundberg said.

Calgarians shouldn’t be surprised to see open drug use, social disorder or the recent stabbings on Calgary Transit, Sundberg said. He said we’ve become complacent in providing space for those unhoused or addicted to grab a shred of dignity.

“We should be ashamed, collectively ashamed that we’ve allowed it to get this bad,” he said.

“We need to put an end to this.”

To that end, Dr. Sundberg said Hansen’s plan is “brilliant.”

“It’s broadly informed, it’s evidence-based, and it makes sense,” he said.

“It’s a place where human dignity can be recaptured.”

How to move the plan forward

Dr. Sundberg said the plan would take months to execute and estimated $100 million to put the pieces together.

“That’s what has to happen,” he said.

“No more guessing, no more making decisions based on politics, as opposed to the actual need. No more of this nonsense, or this irresponsible and absolutely ineffectual policymaking.”

Hansen said it’s going to take more work to see something like this take shape. She recognizes there’s already work happening across Calgary by a variety of hardworking groups to help Calgarians in need. There may be an opportunity to bring them all together to help.

She also understands there will likely be substantial opposition to the plan. There could likely be dozens if not hundreds of people needing help concentrated in one area.

“I don’t want to ghetto-ize anyone,” Hansen said.

“I don’t want to make it seem like this is like the only like space for people who are facing these kinds of issues.”

Having people in one area to deliver regimented outreach helps curb the need to continually displace the social disorder, violence or drug use, only then to have to respond to the new areas of concern.

While a potentially hefty price tag may also raise red flags among Calgarians, she said, the return on investment is considerable. Hansen said it limits the revolving door of paramedics or police (or firefighters) continually responding to medical or social disorder calls. Not to mention the impact it has on the health system. She called it an endless and expensive cycle.

The next step would be having economists thoroughly vet the plan, Hansen said.

The plan needs a champion, Hansen said

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott, whose area covers the Greyhound terminal, said this kind of plan has been talked about by other grassroots outreach organizations for a long time.

“So, it’s really powerful to see that so many different people with a wide variety of lived experiences are actually coming to the same conclusion for the space,” he said.

Of course, there’s the question of cost, Walcott said. He said it would be critical for the province to step up and help.

“They don’t have to come in and operate the whole thing. We’ve got community partners who want to do this,” he said.

“But the city needs a partner to make sure that we can do this because the reason that the Greyhound sits empty is because they haven’t paid the bill to clean it up.”

Walcott said that he would advocate for the city to fund a portion of the space. He also recognizes that 14 others members of Calgary city council would have their opinion on it as well.

“I think some of the hardest parts of it is really understanding that some of the things that have the best social good and public good don’t always make the most money, but they serve the largest purpose in society,” Walcott said.

Hansen knows it will be a tough sell. She said the fact the city is continuing to look at possible uses gives her tremendous hope. 

How can a plan like this continue to gain more traction, LWC asked.

“I think what it would take is to have a champion in the city,” Hansen said.