Maple Ridge is showcasing its experience with homelessness to the rest of the province at the annual gathering of the cities this week.
Mayor Nicole Read outlined the city’s approach at a study session titled Tent Cities and Homelessness, Monday at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria.
“Maple Ridge was the one of the only communities in B.C. to ever achieve a voluntary decampment without an injunction,” Read said in a news release.
She said a strong “collaborative partnership” that focuses on “surrounding vulnerable citizens with a team of people” can help street people find homes.
A year ago, Maple Ridge city began the voluntary dispersal of the tent city camp that occupied Cliff Avenue for the spring and summer of 2015.
Part of that dispersal included opening the temporary homeless shelter at 22239 Lougheed Hwy., so that people in the tent city had a place to go to.
The shelter will remain open an extra year to allow a permanent housing complex and homeless shelter, planned for 21375 Lougheed Hwy., to get underway.
Maple Ridge assistant fire chief Mark Smitton, along with social policy analyst Shawn Matthewson, also spoke at UBCM.
“It’s a challenging and emotional issue,” said Maple Ridge’s chief administrator Ted Swabey.
He said that the cities and province have to join on the issue, “so we can move from fighting fires day-to-day and shift towards solutions with our partners in senior government.”
B.C. Housing has promised $15-million to build the new housing complex and homeless shelter.
Swabey said staff in Maple Ridge focus on the core issues that create homelessness, rather than the symptoms.
Coun. Craig Speirs backed the city’s approach, which included buying the property that could be used for the housing complex.
A rezoning process takes place this fall and, if approved, would allow B.C. Housing to build and operate the complex. The city is also holding four dialogues on homelessness, prior to the rezoning.
“We’ve done something that works and now we have to continue doing stuff that works,” Speirs said.
Evidence shows that the Housing First approach, giving people a roof and support before they can deal with their problems, works, he added.
“We know that Housing First works a lot better than abstinence.”
Speirs said the “tough-love” approach many advocate doesn’t work.
“There are reasons why people end up drug addicted. They’re avoiding pain or just trying to get by.”
The tough-love approach doesn’t work on people who have no love, he added.
“Any amount of tough love doesn’t work.”
Speirs said he hopes that the fall forums will help people understand the city’s predicament. For example, court rulings have said that tent cities can’t be torn down unless people have shelter to go to.
“Homelessness, guess what? it’s a lack of housing.
“If you’re a drug addict or mentally ill or anything like that, you still need a house to live in. You still need a secure place to lay your head.”
People make their own choices, and if they choose to be drug users, that’s what they’ve chosen. Hopefully, at some point they’ll change, he added.
But many are coping with trauma or loss.
“So I don’t judge them on what it takes to get through the day.”
However, crime can’t be tolerated to support those habits, he said.
Speirs wants the interim housing complex built as soon as possible so people can vacate the temporary homeless shelter, which is supposed to close next March.
“The facility we have now is dehumanizing.” Once people can get into better housing, they can start dealing with their issues, he added.
He doesn’t understand why people oppose a shelter or housing complex.
“If we don’t do anything, they’ll end up on our streets anyway. They’ll end up camping in your back yard anyway.”
Speirs said he was concerned about another group – the 25 per cent of renters who are paying more than half their income on rent.
“That could really create some problems for us.”
Coun. Corisa Bell, who’s president of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, said one resolution, if successful, could help the homelessness situation by preventing “renovictions” – people being evicted from their apartments to developers can build pricier condos.