A problem since the start
As cars passed along the Haney Bypass, Joanne Pinkney watched a man perched behind a concrete median shoot drugs into his foot.
A few metres away, a bicycle towing a buggy full of assorted possessions was parked near her fence.
“We’ve been battling this for a long, long time,” said Pinkney, who owns Maple Ridge Pool and Spa Centre.
Pinkney has seen all kinds of shady transactions take place in the empty lot across from her business.
Her customers have been propositioned by prostitutes, she has been threatened, and cleaning up discarded syringes is a daily task.
She calls police and the bylaws department daily to complain about the people living in a ravine near Cliff Avenue.
The police arrive and move people off the property. But 10 minutes later, she says, they are back.
Pinkney blames the Salvation Army’s Caring Place for attracting the district’s down and out residents to the area.
She and her husband have owned the pool and spa business since 1993. The shelter moved to the area in 2003.
The problems with open drug use, parties in the woods and prostitution are driving away her customers.
“The building was a business centre when we moved here,” said Pinkney. “It had a fabric shop, a lawyer’s office, a medical office. We were put in this situation.”
Pinkney has a thick file detailing all her correspondence with District of Maple Ridge since 2003 and is growing increasingly frustrated with Band-Aid solutions that aren’t solving the problem. She recently penned a letter to the Salvation Army’s head quarters, asking that the Caring Place be “a better corporate citizen.”
She believes the district should be pushing for more affordable housing so people can get off the street.
“It’s not changed at all,” Pinkney said. “They have to come up with a solution.”
The Caring Place empathizes with Pinkney and the residents of Cliff Ave., but often can’t police what happens off its property. It isn’t the only social agency in Maple Ridge’s downtown core, but one of more than 20 organizations providing support, from the food bank to a drug treatment centre.
“We are working with bylaws and RCMP to clear up the situation, but a lot of it is out of our control,” said Caring Place director Darrell Pilgrim.
Clients are not allowed to take food off site and Pilgrim added that most of the people who frequent Cliff Ave. are banned from the Caring Place.
“The unfortunate thing is we serve abut 600 different individuals and we are talking about 20 individuals or less who are causing issues.”
Tackling the problem isn’t simple, either.
“A majority of the people are dealing with mental health issues, poverty, hunger and a wide range of disorders that unfortunately our city doesn’t have the answers for right now,” said Pilgrim.
As co-chair of the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows-Katzie Housing Planning Table, Pilgrim believes affordable or subsidized housing is a solution to the homeless problem.
People who work with the poor and homeless say there have been successes in the past three years.
After rising steadily since 2005, the number of people living on the streets in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows dropped for the first time this year.
Results of the 2014 Metro Vancouver count in March showed 84 homeless in the area, down 38 per cent from 110 in 2011.
The housing planning table’s “End Homelessness Action Plan” recommends the creation of 15 to 20 units of low barrier affordable housing for the hard-to-house homeless population.
It also urges the district to create a policy that makes affordable housing part of new residential developments.
The district, meanwhile, assures downtown businesses and residents that staff are tackling the homeless problem.
“We are doing our best to move them and we have moved numerous people along, but some keep coming back,” said bylaws director Liz Holitzki. “It’s almost like a revolving door.”
Next week, two police officers trained in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design techniques will visit the vacant lot on Cliff Ave. to develop a solution.
“It’s just hard with today’s legislation. You can get them to move off the property, but police can’t really arrest them for trespassing. It’s not an arrestable offence. It just makes it more difficult,” she added.
Holitzki also believes the people are congregating on Cliff Ave, because it is so close to social services, such as the shelter.
She said other organizations in the community often bring people who are living in the ravine food and clothes. They don’t understand that they are doing more harm than good.
“They just don’t realize they are enabling them to stay there and contributing to the problem.”
The Caring Place is running a campaign to ask the community how they care. Whether it's walking your neighbour's dog or volunteering at your kid's school, people in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are busy doing good deeds.
Caring Place director Darrell Pilgrim said the campaign is trying to change the conversation.
"Instead of focusing on the needs, we focus on all the good things that are going on," he said.
The annual back pack and school supply drive is on now at the Caring Place. You can drop of donations of new stationary, backpacks and school supplies at the shelter or make a donation at Staples.