B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon says an announcement should be coming “within two weeks” about plans to help alleviate the issues at the Lonzo Road homeless camp in Abbotsford.
Kahlon said the ministry has been working with Mayor Ross Siemens and council, BC Housing and other non-profit groups on “the next steps to address the challenging situation that we have.”
“Our focus is the people who are the most vulnerable … The way people have been (living) there, it’s not safe – increased fires, increased police calls. It’s a really challenging situation and, fundamentally, it’s lack of housing,” Kahlon told The Abbotsford News on Tuesday afternoon (May 30).
He said he couldn’t provide specifics about the plans, but they include “alternative accommodations for people.” Kahlon said there will be “more to say in the coming weeks on what the Lonzo encampment, in particular, will look like.”
Kahlon shot back at Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman and the BC United Caucus, who released a statement Tuesday morning alleging that Premier David Eby “ignored and buried” a 2022 briefing note about the Lonzo Road encampment and refused “to take action” while serving as the housing minister.
“I’ll just say that we’ll be taking no advice from the BC United Party on how to deal with homeless people and encampments. Bruce Banman, when he was the mayor of Abbotsford, used chicken manure to try to disperse people from homeless camps,” Kahlon said.
Kahlon was referring to the 2013 incident in which chicken manure was dumped at a gathering spot for unhoused people across from the Salvation Army on Gladys Avenue, causing them to be displaced. Banman was mayor at the time.
Internal city documents later obtained by the media indicated that several managers at city hall were involved in the decision, although then city manager George Murray took the heat for the decision and declined to publicly name anyone else involved.
In his statement released Tuesday morning, Banman said documents newly obtained through a freedom of information (FOI) request show that Eby was formally warned about “the extremely serious health and safety concerns” at the park-and-ride lot, which is on Ministry of Transportation land.
The property is located in east Abbotsford just north of Highway 1 and west of Sumas Way (Highway 11). The adjacent Riverside Road is also a homeless encampment.
The Abbotsford Police Department has labelled the area as the city’s “most violent homeless camp,” and Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service has said it will no longer attend emergencies there without police accompaniment.
The “information briefing notice” obtained under the FOI is dated April 22, 2022 and is addressed to Eby as the attorney general and housing minister at the time.
It indicates that there were 30 to 60 people sheltering at the encampment, but that the population can grow to more than 120 people in the spring and summer.
“Significant health and safety concerns have included: garbage and fire hazards, abandoned trucks, an explosion that closed the highway, criminal activity including a homicide, the dumping of RV sewage into a salmon stream, and more recently, flooding seepage and reduced visits from outreach staff due to violence,” the documents state.
The homicide mentioned occurred on April 7, 2021. The victim was Robert Nelson, 35, and nobody has yet been charged with his killing.
The briefing notice indicates that, at the time, support for the encampment included daily outreach, weekly cleanups, an on-site sanitation trailer, a mobile health unit, and community-based and municipal health and sanitation.
In a letter that Banman sent to Eby in January 2022, he stated that he had heard from many people who were concerned about the way the government had handled the encampment and “the lack of housing or social supports available,” resulting in the makeshift camps.
“Dozens of constituents have already expressed their concern of the conditions under which these individuals are now being forced to live, with a significant build-up of trash, needles and other refuse, much of which is now contaminating the local water systems,” Banman wrote.
He said many people were concerned about the safety of the camp residents, including from several fires that have occurred on the site.
“I have reached out to Premier Eby and have made multiple requests for the NDP government to step in and clear the Lonzo encampment but so far it’s been nothing but empty rhetoric. This lack of accountability from David Eby and his government is deeply troubling,” Banman said in the press release.
“The premier was fully aware of the risks and dangers faced by both the vulnerable individuals living in the camp and the surrounding community. It is unacceptable that these warnings were disregarded, and that no steps were taken to ensure the safety and well-being of those affected.”
The press release states that the BC United Caucus is urging the government to take immediate action to address the health and safety concerns on the site, enhance transparency, and “give serious consideration to warnings from stakeholders, including its own officials.”