While much attention was paid in 2016 to a very public homeless camp in the heart of downtown Chilliwack, in 2017 the attention turned to encampments in the far-flung corners of the city.
For those living rough this year, it would seem they just can’t get a break.
“We tried to stay off the grid so we weren’t an eyesore,” a homeless man told The Progress as he and others were being evicted from the camp in the woods on private property near the Evans Roundabout in October.
Chilliwack not only has not been spared from the provincewide — indeed nationwide — crisis of homelessness, the problem hit the city hard. In March, it was reported the latest count of those on the streets who self-identify as homeless reached 221 up from just 73 at the last count in 2014.
And the mayor said city hall was aware of 18 homeless camps in and around the city, a number that certainly fluctuates.
The most notorious in 2017 became the one at the Evans Roundabout and one on the Chilliwack River just up from the Vedder Bridge. One also emerged on Island 22, and a longstanding one on the Kwaw-kwaw-apilt reserve behind Townsend Park began to garner more attention.
Three out of those four camps were dismantled in 2017, the individuals evicted and sites cleaned up. And while the people in those camps may not have wanted to leave, the dismantling was far too long in the coming for many residents. At least part of the delay, at least on the part of natural resource officers from the provincial government, was reportedly because of the wildfires in B.C.’s interior.
Staying off the radar and out of the public eye may seem like a good plan for someone living rough, but in the case of these camps, private property and environmental protection triggered a response.
In October, residents of the camp at 45305 Yale Rd. were handed a “notice of trespass” after years of living on the site many thought was Crown land. It is, however, land owned by The Order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The city received complaints about the camp for years, with several raids taking place at the site recovering stolen property. The winter before, a 51-year-old woman died in the camp when the tent she was in collapsed under snow.
Then there were the camps on the banks of the Chilliwack River near the Vedder Bridge and the Fraser River near Island 22.
The one in the Chilliwack River Valley became notorious as a destination for stolen goods, according to witnesses who live and fish nearby. In addition to the allegations of property crime and drug use tied to the camp, the site was subject to a special order for environmental sensitivity forbidding camping of any kind.
Finally in late November, the campers were given an order to be out and on Dec. 5 and 6, the cleanup took place. In the end, more than 1,000 syringes were removed from the site and a helicopter was brought in to fly out 21,540 pounds of garbage.
A couple of days later, natural resource officers with help from security and RCMP also removed a camp on the Fraser River near Island 22.
There were also reports in December that the longstanding camp on reserve land behind Townsend Park was to be dismantled, but that now won’t happen until the new year.
As to where all these people went, some report camps were simply set up further into the bush in the Chilliwack River Valley. Some apparently indeed got help and housing, but these are among the hardest to house.
“In a perfect world, we would have housing for everyone, but the reality is there are some who will never come inside and get the help they need,” Mayor Sharon Gaetz said in March.
“It’s either too comfortable to not seek services or it’s that some of these people truly don’t know they exist.” Coun. Sam Waddington said in October.
There is a bit of a communal cognitive dissonance when it comes to the homeless, as some society wrestles with the problems of mental illness and addiction and a lack of housing, while some see simply property crime, illegal drug use, discarded syringes and environmental mess.
For Vancouver homeless advocate Judy Graves the issue is not mental health or addiction, many middle class housed people suffer from those afflictions.
“Homelessness is about the availability of housing,” Graves said in an interview a year ago, adding that nothing is unique locally.
“It’s not a Chilliwack problem, it’s a Canadian problem.”