Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
Last weekend, one of the coldest, nastiest of the year, police, bylaw enforcement officers and fire officials descended on the Anita Place tent city in Maple Ridge, B.C., to seize heaters and propane burners used by residents to stay warm.
During the sweep, heat and electricity were also cut to the one municipally-sanctioned warming tent after inspectors found evidence someone had tampered with the electrical and propane supplies. That left the dozens of homeless people living at the camp with nowhere to warm up in sub-zero temperatures.
The raid was decried by Pivot Legal Society and the Alliance Against Displacement, an activist group representing camp residents, as a calculated effort by the city of Maple Ridge to freeze tent city residents out.
That’s not entirely fair. There were good reasons for the cleanup. It was ordered by a B.C. Supreme Court justice who feared someone might die in a fire. A woman living in the camp had come close Dec. 30 when her tent caught fire: she was treated for smoke inhalation and burns to her hands and feet. It was among seven fires at Anita Place in less than two years; early Friday morning the fire department put out another blaze. “To risk freezing or burning is a choice no one should have to make,” Justice Christopher Grauer wrote.
Still, you can also understand why homeless people might see the sweep as a backdoor way to push them out. Maple Ridge has always seemed to have a compassion deficit. It has opposed shelters and modular housing – particularly low-barrier projects which don’t require residents to be sober or drug-free – at almost every turn. After the first modular housing project was approved under former mayor Nicole Read, the backlash against her efforts to help homeless people was so severe, the RCMP were called to investigate threats to her safety. Meanwhile, the tent city remains.
Anita Place has been operating for almost two years, but the homelessness problem in Maple Ridge and its neighbours stretches back much longer and grows worse by the year. In 2017, when the last metro homeless count was done, 1,467 homeless people were living in suburbs outside Vancouver, triple the number counted in 2014.
Justice Grauer made it clear in his ruling he was not disbanding the camp because there was nowhere else for residents to go. “It is to be hoped that Maple Ridge and British Columbia will work together urgently to bring an end to the need for Anita Place.”
The city’s sole 53-unit modular housing complex is full. And despite the city’s insistence there are warm beds and meals available for everyone in the camp, the activists say the lone shelter is too small and unsuitable for everyone in the tent city.
I tried to ask newly elected Mayor Mike Morden for his views. He is refusing media calls, ostensibly because the cleanup injunction is under appeal. But his landslide win was based on a law-and-order campaign to reduce crime and shut down Anita Place. A statement issued this week said the city is working with senior levels of government on solutions.
Here’s what Maple Ridge needs to understand: Homelessness is a regional problem which is impossible for any single municipality to wish away. Homeless people often have drug or alcohol dependencies. Some have mental illnesses. You can’t cherry pick your homeless population nor enforce abstinence. For inspiration, look to the efforts of Vancouver. While far from perfect – there has been a tent city operating all winter at Oppenheimer Park – it has opened most of its 606 approved modular housing units.
Your job as a city is to help all citizens, no matter how troubled, secure a warm, dry place to live.