Along the Fraser: Good fences, good neighbours

It's a community on Cliff Avenue, people helping people

Good fences make good neighbours – Mending Wall, Robert Frost

 

Two neighbours fix a fence between them. One struggles to recall its purpose. The other says, “good fences make good neighbours.”

On Cliff Avenue in Maple Ridge – the site of a homeless camp – Nathan, 24, and Samantha, 29 ignore a timeless social barrier. They distribute sandwiches to people in tents facing a row of houses.

“This isn’t a religious thing,” Samantha says. “We’re just here to let these people know that we care about them.”

Nathan – who paid $60 for sandwich ingredients – searches for words.

“There’s something about the homeless that reminds me of what it is to be human. I might say hi to somebody in the street, and they’ll turn the other way. Here, everybody’s friendly. When people come together like this – in a community – there’s a joy we don’t often see. It’s refreshing.”

“This is our community,” says Eva, an out-of-work flag person, and “gramma.” She’s sitting outside Momma Bear’s tent.

“These people are my family,” Momma adds. “We look after each other.”

Tom, on a lawn chair, talks quietly to Frank, an older man from Maple Ridge. Both have lived here for decades.

“All we want,” says Frank, “is an affordable place to live. To find one is damn near impossible. Put us in a campground.”

A home is a key issue.

“I have an apartment in town,” Tom says, “but I’ve been homeless – meth. Drugs, and broken relationships are the problems. I went for treatment.”

Tom knows most people in the camp. “They’re my friends. They helped me when nobody else would.”

Critics claim campers are from out of town, some from Pitt Meadows where there’s no shelter like the Caring Place.

“There aren’t any new people here,” Tom insists. “People leave and come back because they have family here.”

Tracy is the camp’s “unofficial mayor” and town marshal. She tells a young man grumbling to himself to settle down, and praises three volunteers who take turns cleaning up garbage.

“We’ve been kicked out of every place we go,” says Tracy. She claims bylaw officers scoop up their belongings when they’re not around.

“They’ve herded us place to place, until we had nowhere to go. Now, they don’t want us here.”

Brian Smedling, a local businessman, brings sandwiches and water on Saturdays. He’s been homeless in Vancouver. “You have problem people there who can’t be helped, the criminal element, too far gone. Most here worked, and didn’t have drug issues until they hit the street. They’re good people stuck in a bad situation. If they had a place to store their stuff safely, they’d look for work knowing it’s there when they got back.”

The province will fund a temporary shelter. Its purpose is to end the Cliff Avenue camp. Ending the homeless problem will require permanent solutions. “Not all urban campers can expect to be settled in Maple Ridge.,” Coun. Craig Speirs says.

“They’ll have to go out of town.”

If you relocate people with family ties here, many will come home again. Others, warns Smedling, aren’t ready for any kind of housing. They’ll need transition plans. They’ll keep their possessions – in the bush if necessary. “We need decent sized lockers,” says Tracy who has a pet. “I won’t leave my little dog to go in a shelter.” Would anybody?

Then there’s the youth – abandoned by federal housing cuts. This new wave of homeless, says Smedling, need intervention now. “Two kids showed up here, 13, and 15,” adds Tracy. “We’re parents. We wouldn’t let them stay, exposed to drugs or sexual abuse.”

Announcement of a temporary shelter – for “good people” – can be more about good press than doing the right thing.

What happens after the Cliff Avenue camp is what elected officials should focus on. Lately, campers watched an Abbotsford company extend the chain link fence the city put up between the street and greenbelt. The add-on blocks access to “a dangerous slope” – and the last wooded refuge of the homeless before Cliff Avenue. “Good fences make good neighbours,” should always be closely examined for purpose.

 

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