Maple Ridge approves PR money for homelessness

Wants to hire private firm to help with communications around Cliff Avenue camp.

Council has approved spending $10,000 to hire a public relations company so it can manage communications around the Cliff Avenue homeless camp.

“We need a strategy around the camp,” Mayor Nicole Read said at Monday’s meeting during an update on the Resilience Initiative, formerly the homelessness task force.

“Is our current communications resourcing adequate? I would say it’s not,” she said.

“My opinion is, we do not have enough communications capacity, period.”

The money would be used to hire a firm that would create a strategy for the city to follow as it tries to deal with information requests from the public and media via social media, e-mail, the web about the homelessness issue.

Currently, Maple Ridge’s communications department has only one employee, corporate communications manager Fred Armstrong.

“We think we need a bit of a media strategy. They [the public] wants open, transparent government and they want to know what’s going on,” Read said later.

Part of the solution to the homelessness issue could be in opening a temporary shelter, while another long-term housing project could also be built, both in partnership with B.C. Housing.

Those topics were discussed Friday at a meeting between the mayor and Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows MLA Doug Bing.

“We had a wide-ranging discussion about the tent city and homelessness issue,” Bing said.

They didn’t get into any specifics about what kind of shelter the city wants, he added.

However, Read said later that the Salvation Army Caring Place shelter has only 25 beds. A new temporary shelter, location, yet unknown, could be a place to refer people now at the Cliff Avenue camp.

“We need to relieve the pressure from Cliff Avenue.”

The size of the shelter would depend on the result of information surveys now underway of those living at the camp. Several agencies could operate such a shelter.

“B.C. Housing is willing to explore that. We need to identify space,” Read said.

Maple Ridge could also get another facility similar to the Alouette Heights, a 45-unit supportive housing complex on Brown Avenue, that opened in 2012.

“There’s definitely some interest on the province’s part to do another Alouette Heights, if that’s in the interest of the city, which I think it is,” said Bing.

Alouette Heights is funded by B.C. Housing, with the city donating the land on which it sits.

Bing toured the facility Friday and said he doesn’t recall any time limits on tenancies.

“I’m not sure you could arbitrarily pick a number,” of months that a person would be allowed to stay at the Heights.

Read has criticized Bing earlier for not stepping up to help the city with the homeless camp that developed on Cliff Avenue this spring.

Bing, though, says he was never formally asked to be involved.

Councillors wanted to ensure whatever gains are made by reducing the numbers of unsheltered people on the streets are not lost as more homeless move into the area.

Read said when someone new comes into the camp, the permanent residents and the street outreach workers would know about it and discourage them from locating there. Every tent in the camp is mapped out with the number and identity of the occupants.

“But we can’t tell someone they can’t be there,” Read said.

The camp started forming in March, then in May grew to about its present size when people blocked the street and decided they were no longer going to be moved along by bylaws officers, said the mayor.

Ridge Meadows RCMP advised that in order to move people, you have to have a place for them to go, added general manager of community development and recreation services Kelly Swift.

The current stretch of hot, dry weather is also posing a safety risk to the area. Homeless people are now venturing down the wooded slopes seeking shade and coolness.

But with the woods tinder dry, that’s a safety risk.

“I think the fire risk is huge,” said Coun. Bob Masse. “I don’t think we can allow that.”

To ease the fire risk, tents have been spread out along the street so they’re at least a metre apart.

“Our goal in the longer term is to dismantle the camp,” said Swift.

But that requires affordable housing for people to go to, she added.

 

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