No one expects to one day end up homeless and living in a tent city in downtown Chilliwack.
“No one ever aspires to this,” says Stewart Holcombe, gesturing around the parking lot that has become his home.
There’s a group sitting in a tangle of tarp-covered carts, tents, sleeping bags and backpacks in the back part of the Princess Lane parking lot, near Five Corners.
From Vancouver Island originally, Holcombe says he’s been in Chilliwack since 2005.
“I am 39 years old. I’ve been to university. I am not here by choice,” he tells a Progress reporter. “Most of us are not here by choice, but we find ourselves here, and unable to get out of it.”
It’s early on a bright and sunny Monday morning.
Coun. Ken Popove and a city crew are also on-scene near the camp, along with security guards from Griffin Security, who show up to try to move them on.
Someone has dropped off a bunch of take-out coffees and doughnuts for the homeless, who are hanging out in lawn chairs, sipping coffee, chatting, smoking, and munching baked goods.
So why have they taken over a parking lot for this makeshift tent city?
Holcombe replied with some exasperation that he tried the other places, like certain parks, that were suggested early on by Chilliwack officials.
“But then I got woken up by a mob of angry community citizens who were telling me to get out of their park,” he said.
The same thing happened when he tried sleeping overnight in another Chilliwack park, as per the court decision that saw local bylaws changed so that City of Chilliwack reps could restrict the practice.
“I was assaulted by a man who had a kid in one hand and a dog in the other. He said to me, ‘This park is for kids, not bums, so get out of it’ which means we are not safe in the places where we had been told we were allowed to sleep.”
Holcombe said he qualifies for some social assistance, and is issued a “support cheque,” which he picks up directly from the government office.
He remembers when he worked a good job in Alberta years ago.
But he had an accident and then slipped back into his addiction to opiates. Soon enough he found himself on the streets.
Every day now in Chilliwack someone screams at him to “get a job!”
Holcombe would like that.
“If I had a place where I could wash my face and shave, and then get out there and pound the pavement, I’d have gotten a job a long time ago.
“Without those things I can’t go out like this, in wet clothes and not clean.”
There is some awareness around the camp that funding might be freed up soon for emergency shelter beds, and that affordable housing projects are on the way in the longer term for Chilliwack — but it’s all not happening fast enough.
Holcombe is standing around with fellow parking lot camper Jesse Ruiz.
Ruiz said he’s heard a lot about what Chilliwack is trying to achieve in terms of its homelessness strategy and attempts to get provincial funding and more affordable housing.
“But in the meantime, what are we supposed to do? We are looking for somewhere to live where we’re not looked down upon,” said Ruiz.
Holcombe said they appreciate all the kindnesses they’ve been shown, but not the abuse.
“We are not zoo exhibits. We are not horrible, harmful people to the community,” said Holcombe. “But I think if the problems that resulted in us becoming homeless are not addressed, it will continue.
“The real issue is we can’t find places to live, and can’t find any help with our addiction problems. We’re stuck here.”
They’ve been talking about where in the community they can go once they get moved along again, and there’s talk about heading to a less visible area in Sardis.
With so few affordable housing units available, coupled with no nearby treatment centres or detox facilities in Chilliwack, the number living in the streets has been growing noticeably.
Coun. Ken Popove said he’s worried that this is the “new normal” for Chilliwack.
“Yes we do have services to help, but we need way more to fix this,” he said.
“It’s a big concern. The citizens of Chilliwack want to be safe, but this is not safe. This is the new normal.”
They’ve lobbied for help from the province, and BC Housing and Fraser Health to all step up to do something about the homeless crisis.
The homeless campers have been “banding together,” because there’s strength in numbers, said Holcombe.
“They’ve been pushing us out everywhere. Eventually someone needs to stop and ask for help. This is about the problems we are going through that are not being addressed.”
He figures about half of those camped out would prefer not to be there.
“They want to have a normal life, but can’t find the place that would start that happening,” he said.
Asked why he thought Chilliwack should now be forced to deal with the influx of homeless camps, and addicted street people, Holcombe shot back that it was “the wrong question” to be asking.
“It’s a problem everywhere. It’s not, ‘Oh, let’s go to Chilliwack and be homeless.’ It’s that we’re here, and we need help.”