In a perfect world, the stretch of forest between Vedder elementary and GW Graham would be a place where curious kids could explore in their free time.
It has trails that are perfect for biking, stumps that are perfect for jumping, and trees that beg to be climbed. There spiders and birds, rocks and twigs, wide open fields and tiny nooks and crannies.
But this is not a perfect world, and there is no way a child should be exploring that area, say a local group of concerned parents. It has long been a hidden space littered with the aftermath of homeless camps and outdoor drug dens. And as children went back to school last week, their parents have banded together to get to the bottom of it.
On Thursday morning, a team of about eight parents gathered at one of the many entrances to this labyrinth of bramble bush and garbage. As they discussed their strategy, the sounds of children and teenagers echoed through the trees from both schools. The parents were met by volunteers from Griffin Security, who walked to the camps to ensure there was nobody there. If there was anyone in the camp, the cleanup would be called off. A quick check showed it was empty, the volunteers were given a safety talk and instructions on finding needles, and the cleanup moved ahead.
They were joined by two members of the Tzeachten First Nation, including Melvin Malloway who was there to both guide the way and lend a hand. This is far from the first time the maintenance worker has cleaned out the mess left by squatters. Prior to Thursday’s cleanup, the Tzeachten band had already brought out three full trucks of garbage this week alone.
It is their land, and Malloway says they’ve been dealing with this problem there, and the forested area across Thomas Road, for the past few years. It’s usually Allegiance Security, the company hired by Chilliwack School District, that contacts them when the camps start to encroach the school grounds. He’s happy to keep up the efforts, as his own grandchildren and great grandchildren attend the schools nearby.
But this last cleanup was prompted when Malloway noticed the media coverage, spurred on by angry parents.
They’ve had enough.
Carly Wiese, a parent at Vedder, says the mess is concerning considering how close it is to where children are playing. Last week, another parent had posted a photo online of a pile of used needles at the base of a stump. The next day, a half dozen parents went to investigate.
“As soon as you walked in there was a needle ten feet in,” she says. “And there were kids running laps right there.”
There was even a manmade hole in the fence at GW Graham that led directly to areas where all sorts of garbage was littered. It includes broken glass, piles of discarded clothing, mattresses, stolen cosmetics, utensils, medication, lighters, and at one camp, even a water-logged book on religion.
A needle could be anywhere, and the volunteers poked at the piles keeping an eye out for any sharps. They found just a handful at the camps, along with needle caps. One of the syringe without the needle tip, points out Brian Goldstone, owner of Griffin. That’s the worst, he says, because the actual needle could be anywhere.
The volunteers picked away, tossing needles in a sharps container, and everything else in garbage bags.
The hole in GW Graham’s fence has been secured, and district staff were on site Thursday morning checking on the area as well. But another hole is in the Vedder elementary fence, leading directly off the parking lot. That one is there by poor fence design, and large enough for an adult to easily sneak through.
It’s only a few metres from that hole, and down an embankment, where Thursday’s cleaning crew found one of the few needles. It was hidden in the bushes, but pulled out by volunteer David Elderkin.
Cleanups around schools seem to be more common this year. Superintendent of schools Evelyn Novak said last week that several schools in the district are dealing with an increase of illegal drug activity on or near the grounds, as homeless camps often edge school property.
But they are hopeful that as seasons change the problem will begin to dwindle. Currently, school staff are patrolling the grounds for items like needles and human waste. Maintenance staff has also been updated on the proper method to discard sharps.
Wiese is happy that the administration at Vedder has been receptive to helping with the problem this year. But she has also reached out to Novak, and to MLA Laurie Throness, and is still awaiting a reply from them.
Conservative MP Mark Strahl has weighed in on the issue, following similar parent complaints at Chilliwack middle school last week.
“As a father of a school aged child, I find this situation totally unacceptable,” he said in a statement. “I’ve been working with other levels of government for months on trying to find solutions to our homeless problem and the issues like this that have accompanied it. We’ve made some progress by convincing the federal government that Chilliwack should be eligible to apply for Homelessness Partnership funds, which we now are, but that’s just a piece of the overall puzzle we’re all working to solve here.”
That should be good news for Chilliwack, when that time comes, as the estimated numbers of homeless here are now in excess of 300 people.
Strahl adds that he’s open to speaking with residents, which is the exact advice given out by Mayor Sharon Gaetz when asked about homelessness. He hosts something called Coffee Connections, where he meets with residents.
“We all want to make our community safe for our kids, and no parent should have to worry that their kid will be exposed to a biohazard on the playground,” Strahl added. “We need a coordinated approach that will include increased law enforcement, addiction treatment, mental health services and harm reduction strategies. If we don’t have all of those, we will risk making a bad situation worse.”