The letter about the ongoing debate about Maple Ridge’s downtown came from the heart, from a long-time activist, council watcher and actual resident.
It’s all very nice to tell people to be more compassionate towards the down-and-out, the homeless, drug addicted or mentally ill – but try coping with that 24/7 as a permanent resident, says Tyler Ducharme.
“We’re supposed to keep our mouths shut and be compassionate,” he says in a recent letter.
It seems as if one questions social programs that are foisted on the area, “they are now on the moral low ground and lack compassion for other people,” Ducharme writes.
He knows people need help, “But at what point do residents get to say that we need a break too?”
Workers from those agencies, (more than 20 in the downtown) get to go home at the end of the day while downtown residents have to put up with the problems at all hours, even when they’re just cooling down from a day’s work.
Help for people, though, has to be accessible if it’s going to be successful, says Sue Wheeler, director of community services with the District of Maple Ridge.
“If they were not accessible, they’re not going to be effective and you’re going to have a lot more people on the street.”
And having helping agencies cooperate with the broader community for overall development of an area is seen as leading edge work, she added.
One way to smooth the rough edges is via the Community Network. That’s an umbrella group of public and private agencies, everything from the food bank to the public library to the Maple Ridge Treatment Centre.
Representatives of each group meet monthly to coordinate and to inform each other about what’s going on in their area of helping.
While some say social service agencies are a magnet for the unfortunate, to the detriment of a healthy downtown, Wheeler says it’s the other way around.
“The fact we have services is because we have needs.”
She says the number of agencies isn’t increasing
She’s been working in Maple Ridge since 1994 and said there was an “explosion of homelessness” in 1998-1999.
“We had huge, huge needs and we didn’t have any support for people.”
And that’s when the Salvation Army received funding to open its shelter.
Wheeler pointed out that social service agencies keep more people from ending up on the street.
“As people cycle through homelessness, there’s a big part of the population that’s at risk and never becomes homelessness because of the help,” they get, she points out.
“Social services are there to help people in times of crisis and need. If they’re not accessible, they’re not going to be effective and you’re going to have a lot more people on the street.”
Another downtown resident, Yvonne Desabrais, says people who live in the downtown area still have to reach out. “I know it’s not easy living in this area. As a resident, it’s hard. You’re not safe.
“But if we’re not humane to each other, it’s going to get worse.”
Desabrais said there are two main issues, people with mental health issues and safety.
“Our prisons are filling up with mental health patients. They don’t belong there.”
Desabrais also disagrees with what she calls the bullying of the Salvation Army’s Caring Place and the work it does at 222nd Street and Lougheed Highway. People who criticize should first go have a meal at the Caring Place to see who really uses the services.
“There’s a lot of work being done towards solutions and that’s why we have so many resources around here. I really don’t feel the Caring Place has to go anywhere. This community looks out for its people.”
Maple Ridge Coun. Bob Masse disagrees there are too many helping agencies or that central Maple Ridge is becoming like the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver.
“I don’t think that’s a problem.”
Many of the agencies people would have no problem supporting, such as the hospice, he added.
“I just think we need to manage things better.”
And he supported the wholistic approach where mental health, addictions, police, outreach work together. Without such coordination, “you’re not going to have as good as outcome, that’s for sure.”
Masse says Maple Ridge’s core may even be improving, although in August council requested a staff report on the downtown area after he said he’s seen a “significant” downturn in the area, with seemingly more new street people.
Masse, whose chiropractic business is in the downtown, also said then that both RCMP and Westridge Security told him they were seeing more people on the street.
“I’m saying that there’s an increase in anti-social behaviour in the community, that is, prostitution and the whole drug-addiction scene and the consequences that go with it. It’s certainly much more visible,” Masse said in August.
Several local businesses subsequently said the same.
But two local businesses recently told Masse that there aren’t nearly the problems compared to a few years ago.
“More and more people are moving downtown and that’s going to continue,” he said Tuesday. “The downtown is going to get better. We have to manage that growth.
“We have problems, I’m not going to say we don’t have problems.”
But council is aware and working on the issue, he added.
Every city faces the same issues, he added.
“We really need the provincial and federal governments to step up and help us out with the mental health issues.”
Some of the agencies located in or near the downtown and which are part of the Community Network:
Child and Family Services, Alouette Addictions, Alouette Home Start Society, Asante Centre for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, CEED Centre, Cythera Transition House Society, DynaParents Support Group, Family Education and Support Centre, Fraser Health, public health unit, Friends in Need Food Bank, Golden Ears Feast, Immigrant Services Society of B.C.,
Literacy Committee (Community Network) Maple Ridge Treatment Centre, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Community Services, Ministry of Children and Family Development, Ridge Meadows Association for Community Living, Ridge Meadows Child Development Centre, Ridge Meadows Early Childhood Development Committee, Ridge Meadows Hospice Society, Ridge Meadows Seniors Society and Westcoast Family Centres Society and the Salvation Army.