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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

NIMBY alive and well in Vancouver

Mykle Ludvigsen

Reprinted from "Stigma & Discrimination" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (6), p. 15-16

Our neighbourhood helps define us. Many of us have put a great deal of thought into where we would like to live, and once we are there, we work hard to create a living space that supports us. We all take great care in ensuring that our communities stay healthy, livable, desirable places to live.

For people recovering from a mental illness, an addiction, or both, it is well-documented that a safe, stable and supportive housing environment is an essential part of recovery. It could be argued that a strong community setting is also an essential part of the recovery process. By and large, most people with mental illness or an addiction can, with a lot of hard work, support, effective treatment and proper self-management, successfully reintegrate back into the community—sometimes after years of disconnection from it.

Sadly, these two ideals often clash when people recovering from mental illness and/or an addiction attempt to reintegrate into a community. NIMBY, the ‘Not In My Backyard’ sentiment, often rears its head, making the reintegration process even more difficult and painful.

NIMBY can be defined as the desire to keep a perceived unpleasant thing out of a community. People will generally support the need for these unpleasant things to exist, but want them located elsewhere. In most cases, these same people will claim that their beliefs don’t have anything to do with NIMBY attitudes, but everything to do with the unsuitability of recovery and reintegration services to that particular neighbourhood.

In addition to NIMBY attitudes, there are people who hold the view that a particular thing should never be built anywhere, ever. Unfortunately, these feelings are shared by many when it comes to treating people with mental illness and addictions.

Recently Vancouver has had two instances of proposed facilities ending up in storms of controversy in their respective neighbourhoods. Each facility had been in advanced stages of planning and was seeking Vancouver City Council approval.

In the first case, the Vancouver-based Triage Emergency Services and Care Society proposed to build a 39bed apartment building to house men and women who have a mental illness but were also recovering from a street-drug addiction. The people housed in the facility, to be located in South Vancouver at Fraser and 39th Avenue, would be in the later stages of their recovery with less risk of relapse. Over the course of several public meetings, concerned members of the community showed up, outraged that this particular facility was being located in their community.

Fear regarding mental health and addiction can usually be put to rest with some simple knowledge. Those of us personally connected with these issues need to ensure that proper information is available.

It is also clear that both Triage and the City of Vancouver needed a better plan for communicating with the community. According to a Vancouver Sun investigation, only 277 flyers were sent out to this dense urban community to explain the project, and only in English—neglecting that the neighbourhood is predominently Chinese and South Asian. The flyer sparked fear amongst community members that this project was being imposed on them with little debate, and that obviously someone must be trying to cover something up. A fundamental rule in controversy communications: the less information put out to the public, the more suspicious the public becomes.

And instead of having a debate on the merits of the particular location for this facility, the ‘debate’ featured accusations that the city knew the community didn’t want the facility and was trying to sneak it in the back door. It also didn’t help that an unlicenced facility for former sex trade workers recovering from addictions existed in the neighbourhood that people hadn’t previously known existed. The city quickly moved to shut that facility down.

Anti-NIMBY strategies

“I was more frightened of the [neighbourhood] residents at the first public meeting than I have ever been with any of the patients I have worked with”

Best practices rooted in lessons learnt by 98 local non-profit, housing, trusts, and voluntary organizations include the following:












  • supporting service users to be as involved as they want to be in planning how to prevent and deal with community opposition

  • providing a contact number that people can call if they have concerns

  • having facts and figures read

  • promoting partnerships between professionals, media, consumers, neighbours, even neighbours from areas who no longer oppose a project

  • being prepared to listen to reasonable complaints and make changes (e.g., about the size of a facility or parking arrangements) without compromising key service issues (e.g., 24 hour access)

  • if the facility is user-run, selling the idea

  • never making promises that would lead to discriminatory exclusions (i.e., excluding people with criminal records or substance use problems)

  • if trouble persists, working with police, media, allies and make use of criminal law if necessary

  • above all, not giving up or apologizing

  • being proactive and not slipping facilities in sideways where you might avoid opposition initially but also lose a pool of goodwill

  • in a UK survey, neighbours suggested the following be included in an education program: practical skills on dealing with problem behaviours, understanding more about what mental illnesses and addictions actually are, available treatment services, and the importance of accepting people with mental illness and/or addictions

Then, just as the Triage controversy was winding down, Family Services of Greater Vancouver moved into the final stages of approval for a youth services centre to be built in Vancouver’s downtown, across from St. Paul’s Hospital. The proposed facility would integrate services for at-risk youth, which were spread throughout the Downtown and West End neighbourhoods, into one facility. The community has had serious problems with street youth for some time, and the plan would move services out of facilities in predominantly residential areas to a more commercial area conveniently located across from one of BC’s largest medical centres.

Despite what appeared to be an excellent opportunity to situate these services on a centrally located, city-owned property, where they would be easier to access by at-risk youth and easier to monitor by police and other social service agencies, opposition in the surrounding area began to crop up. Notices were placed in the lobbies of apartment buildings and slipped under people’s doors, inviting them to attend the public meetings to oppose the project. In some cases, building managers and property owners were encouraging tenants to turn out and oppose the project.

These hearings also revealed a fundamental need for information on mental disorders. Even though the facility was not just for people with mental illness or addiction, mental illness was one of the key points seized on by opponents to the project.

In the end, the project was revised to include a management plan, as well as the integrated youth services centre, and will go ahead. When completed, it will likely meet with the same response that greeted the Dusk to Dawn youth drop-in centre that was established across the street at St. Paul’s Hospital in the early 1990s: people who live nearby will hardly notice it’s there.

In most cases, the neighbourhood concerns are unfounded. Research has proven that schools are no less safe because of the nearby existence of a facility for those with mental illness and addictions, and that property values in an area do not go down (in fact, the province itself has done extensive studies on this subject with some evidence suggesting that property values can even go up, not down)

While NIMBY reactions to projects that will benefit entire communities are difficult to deal with, and at times maddening to people who desperately need those services, they do serve a valuable purpose. The debates about them propel society to learn about the particular disorders and afflictions, become familiar with the agencies that deliver services, and give those agencies a chance to prove to skeptical members of the community that they are assets to the community. Debate provoked by NIMBY attitudes also helps agencies improve plans to mitigate fears and create effective communications strategies to combat those fears, including having service users themselves talk to concerned neighbours.

As in everything, a little education and open communication go a long way.

About the Author

Mykle is Communications Officer at Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division




  1. McMartin, P. (2004, October 20). Maybe the NIMBY side has a point. Vancouver Sun, B1.

  2. Ministry of Housing, Recreation and Consumer Services. (1996). Toward More Inclusive Neighbourhoods. Retrieved June 10, 2004, from www.mcaws. NEIGHBOUR. See the section called “Property values unaffected by non-market housing.

  3. Repper, J., Sayce, L., Strong, S. et al. (1997). Tall Stories from the Back Yard: A survey of opposition to community mental health facilities experienced by key service providers in England and Wales (executive summary). London: MIND.

  4. Sayce, L. & Willmot, J. (1997).Gaining Respect: A guide to preventing and tackling community opposition to mental health services. London: MIND.

  5. Reda, S. (1996). Public perceptions of former psychiatric patients in England. Psychiatric Services, 47, 1253-1255.

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