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Homelessness in Metro Vancouver is not confined to the Downtown Eastside

Image: Flickr/joeandsarah

On a drenched morning in May, RCMP and bylaw enforcement officers in Maple Ridge, B.C., moved in to dismantle a homeless camp. They confiscated belongings and removed temporary fencing. The signal was loud and clear: Leave voluntarily or be removed forcefully.

Known as Anita Place, the camp sits on a small city-owned lot slated to be a future park and playground. It's at the end of a dead-end road beside a highway bypass, neighboured by a ravaged, boarded up house. Hardly a prime spot for a play date with the kids.

Named after Anita Hauck, a homeless woman who was found dead in a clothing donation bin in 2015, the camp sprang up in April after the announcement of the imminent closure of a nearby temporary shelter. Dozens of tents were pitched on the grounds of Anita Place during the following weeks.

Until the crackdown by the authorities, the camp was surrounded by fencing, which provided a scant sense of privacy and protection for the camp's inhabitants. There has been an aggressive backlash to low-barrier shelters in their community. This backlash varies from your garden-variety poor-bashing to threats of physical violence. Drive-by burnouts and horn-blaring in the mornings are common. The anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin have been involved, proving that perhaps, in a way, their bigotry can transcend race.

"The campers spend every day under threat of vigilante attacks," says Stephen Miller, a local supporter and organizer at Anita Place.

A message board and a banner on the remaining portion of fence serve as the camp's formal entrance. Displayed on the message board are the rules and founding constitution of Anita Place. One sign notes drug use in the open won't be tolerated. Residents are to check in upon arrival, and only residents are permitted entry. Now that the fences are removed, it seems unlikely those rules will be enforced.

One of the easternmost municipalities of metropolitan Vancouver, it takes two hours on public transit to reach Maple Ridge from downtown. This is end of the line for metro Vancouver. It is also figuratively the end of the line for those needing shelter.

Many Maple Ridge residents are strongly opinionated about the homeless population in their neighbourhood. For some, their opposition is quiet, and perhaps fuelled by some real and valid concerns about how a shelter may affect their neighbourhood. But, for many, it's simply that the homeless are dangerous, dirty, and undeserving of shelter or much else. The most common line is the age-old adage, "Get a job."

A recent residents' committee report came forward with one central finding on the issue of homelessness in Maple Ridge: Not in our backyard. A low-barrier shelter can be built, concludes the report, but somewhere out of sight and out of mind -- i.e. not downtown, where the services are, nor too close to any residential areas.

The committee's report, however, hasn't been without controversy.

"At least four members were publicly on record as being against any kind of shelter anywhere in Maple Ridge. They were used by the local Liberal MLAs as cover for their lack of action on this issue," explains Miller.

Those Liberal MLAs, Doug Bing and Marc Dalton, previously blocked the opening of a low-barrier shelter in the community. The proposed location, a former motel, later became one of their campaign offices in the recent provincial election. Both candidates lost their bids for re-election.

The issue of homelessness was at forefront during the last election. And despite garnering most of the headlines, the issue isn't restricted to the Downtown Eastside, and perhaps nowhere is it as contentious as in Maple Ridge.

Since 2014, Metro Vancouver experienced a 30 per cent increase in homelessness. With Vancouver proper only experiencing a 19 per cent increase, the surge has been much more drastic in the surrounding municipalities such as Maple Ridge.  

Anti-shelter advocates were quick to tar local NDP candidate Lisa Beare with being in favour of low-barrier shelter options, despite no comment from her even endorsing such a thing. Furthermore, the NDP platform contained no mention of specific shelters in Maple Ridge. In fact, during a campaign stop in Maple Ridge in which housing advocates persuaded him to tour the tent city, NDP leader John Horgan explicitly refused to commit to a low-barrier shelter.

Despite the lack of actual support, anti-shelter advocates decided that perceptions mattered more than facts. Flyers were distributed anonymously, claiming that a vote for the NDP's Beare was a vote for increased crime and discarded syringes being left in playgrounds -- because apparently those are things only homeless people do.

One flyer delivered the night before the election even spliced the face of Beare with Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read, implying that they were one and the same.

Of course, no flyers were distributed in the tent city, as the ability to exercise one's democratic right to vote is prohibitively difficult for someone with no permanent address.

Read's support of the homeless population and lack of opposition to a low-barrier shelter garnered her enough hate mail and threats that she was forced to cancel all public appearances for a month while the RCMP investigated.

Given the violent response from these vigilante groups, it's no wonder that support for the homeless population in Maple Ridge is tough to find, although it is there.

Local faith groups and compassionate Maple Ridge residents are doing their best, fighting an injunction to vacate the land that occupies Anita Place. Local supporters have organized barbecues, rallies, and clothing and food drives. Even local companies have donated supplies, though the city forced one company to remove the port-a-potties they donated, because having a place to shit is apparently too much to ask for.

For Miller, changing the minds of those opposed to Anita Place and any future shelter isn't a lost cause. "I think the amount of vitriol comes from average people who are probably quite nice in other areas of their lives but seem to lose their moral compass when it comes to the street population."

When it comes to how to change those minds that are so strongly entrenched in poor-bashing narratives, Miller says "We need to care about all people not just those we consider 'truly deserving' of compassion and dignity."

Matt Chilliak is a freelance writer and campaign organizer who has worked and volunteered in several elections in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and the United States. In Maple Ridge and around the Metro Vancouver region, he spent two months campaigning with the B.C. NDP during the recent provincial election. He holds an honours degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan.

Image: Flickr/joeandsarah

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