Opinion: Homeless at risk

A fire at a Chilliwack homeless camp, and the death of a woman in another camp, offer stark reminders of the dangers these camps hold.

A fire at a homeless camp on Alexander Ave. in Chilliwack Wednesday evening has displaced several people.

An overnight fire at a Chilliwack homeless camp, and the death of a woman last weekend in another camp, offer stark reminders of the dangers these camps hold for the people who live there.

Wednesday night’s fire claimed at least six tents, perched along Railway Avenue under the Yale Road overpass. The fire displaced about 20 people, many forced to leave their meagre belongings behind as they sought shelter elsewhere.

The location has been on the City’s radar for weeks, ever since it successfully received a court injunction that allowed officials to dismantle a camp that had sprung up in the parking lot near Five Corners.

With that camp gone, it wasn’t long before the tenters returned to a favourite spot.

The overpass has been a popular place for years, prompting several attempts to prevent people from lodging there. The most obvious was the installation of a metal fence to closed off the deeper reaches of the overpass.

Other attempts include a device that emits a high-pitched noise.

But not all the efforts are so overt.

Local bylaw officers, police and non-profit support agencies have also worked to find more stable and secure accommodation for those who want it.

The reason? These encampments are simply not safe.

This is not the first fire to strike a homeless camp, nor will it be the last. The mix of candles and camp stoves, coupled with nylon tents and wooden pallets make the likelihood too great.

But fire is not the only risk, as the death of the woman in the collapsed tent at another camp illustrates.

Alternatives do exist. Local shelters say they have room and they won’t turn anyone away.

Still, shelters are only one piece of a complex solution. As Chilliwack’s homeless population continues to grow, the city needs a low barrier alternative.

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