When people see the tarps and tents and plastic sheets, the shopping carts, scavenged bicycles and squalor of a tent city, it bothers them, says SFU psychology professor Julian Somers.
“I think people are disturbed by it. They know something is wrong.”
And when tent cities don’t go away, people start to ask how to deal with them, Somers said, adding they’re a sign of a social emergency.
For Maple Ridge Mayor Michael Morden, tent cities are indicative of a much larger problem.
“It’s not just tent cities. It’s a lack of housing for those people who need it, from seniors to those who are in poverty and low income.”
Such camps include a criminal element that preys on those in a bad place in their lives, while businesses face extra costs, such as having to hire security guards, Morden added.
Tent cities “just further entrench a lot of problems.”
Maple Ridge is in the process of trying to close the Anita Place Tent City on 223rd Street after a fire safety evacuation of the camp on March 1, followed by restricting access to verified residents, after receiving a court order.
Currently, nine people remain in the camp, with seven of those now willing to move if they’re given a place to live, Morden said. He added there’s a broken social safety net. “We need to do our part to fix it. That’s health, that’s housing, that’s treatment,” Morden said.
According to BC Housing, 47 people were living at tent city and will be housed at the temporary supportive housing facility which opens next fall at 11749 – Burnett St. More than 30 people were staying at the evacuation centre at 2239 Lougheed Hwy., after tent city was evacuated.
Former Surrey mayor Linda Hepner witnessed the long-term effects of the multi-year tent city along 135A Street, also known as the Surrey Strip.
Hepner said that about a dozen businesses actually closed their doors because of the camp. Tents were set up on sidewalks, blocking customer traffic, while shop owners had to deal with litter, needles and human waste daily, requiring cleaning by city crews.
Even staff at the nearby B.C. Lions training facility were scared to walk by, she added.
And as in Maple Ridge, there was the concern that once homes were found for camp residents, Hepner said, they’d simply be back-filled by more people arriving from somewhere else.
But that didn’t happen after the modular homes opened last June and the camp was cleared, Hepner said. Hepner noted that Maple Ridge’s situation is more difficult because of activist groups involved. She said a group tried to organize a rally on 135A Street in Surrey, but got no support.
“By that time we had created an element of trust with the various people in the tents, that they themselves discouraged it. We didn’t have to do much.”
Once such groups establish themselves, it’s more difficult to interact with the regular people, while activists are also more difficult to relocate because they don’t want help, she added.
While Surrey may have successfully decamped its tent city on 135A Street, there are more resources in that area to do that, noted Dr. Paul Beckett, addictions specialist with the new intensive case management team that works with street people in Maple Ridge.
Beckett, who worked at both prisons in Maple Ridge, as well as at Maple Ridge Treatment Centre and Hannah House – both addictions centres – said perseverance is needed to address the tent city issue.
People can’t be forced into treatment, but resources have to be available the moment someone reaches out, he said.
He added the health authority’s addiction and mental health services are good.
“It’s not for want of trying to put in the supports. My question is, is it enough? The problem is, the problem is huge.”
In Maple Ridge, another 51-unit temporary supportive housing complex on Burnett Street is scheduled to open in October to take present and former residents of Anita Place. That follows the opening of a 53-unit temporary supportive housing complex on Royal Crescent which opened in October 2018.
Beckett said supportive housing is needed, with mental health and addiction services provided concurrently, the day a facility opens. Without that, he added, a housing project can turn into a ghetto. He added that when it comes to providing homes either scattered throughout a community or focused into one building, “either one works as long as there are mental health and addiction supports in place.”
However, Somers labels supportive housing complexes, “temporary container housing.” He said that while they do help people who can’t afford a place to live, they don’t help the mentally ill or addicted who are the hardest to house, and who make up roughly 20 per cent of the people who are struggling on the streets.
“It is not a response that addresses the needs of people who are homeless because they have serious mental health” issues, said Somers, a SFU psychology instructor.
But, “scattered housing and assertive community treatment,” addresses those needs, he said.
Putting people with mental health issues together into one complex isn’t as effective as housing them individually, within the community, provided they get full support, treatment and counselling services, he added.
Somers was part of the At Home/Chez Soi study in 2013 that showed that the Housing First model works, by giving people places while providing support services.