“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who survive.” – Eric Hoffer.
The shadowy parkade on the edge of Memorial Peace Park is a favorite gathering place for Maple Ridge street people.
But, darkness doesn’t matter like it used to. The homeless, addicted, and mentally ill can be seen in daylight, sitting outside banks, coffee shops.
It wasn’t always that way. When I settled here 30 years ago, people didn’t wander streets, their possessions in shopping carts. There weren’t darkly-clad BOBS – boys on bikes – hauling garbage bags to bottle depots, or wasted souls punching the air while shouting obscenities. This drastic social change needs to be redressed if towns like ours are to survive.
In downtown residences, health care workers bathe seniors for bed, administer medication. Once, they weren’t forced to walk past addicts shooting up in the doorways. The job has changed.
“It’s not a safe area,” one worker told me. “Our vehicles are broken into. We never know what we’ll encounter.”
It’s folks struggling with a ‘dual diagnosis’.
“Just pitiful,” says this worker. “These people need support. They’re human beings.”
Dual diagnosis – addiction and mental illness – is the term used by drivers with West Ridge Security.
“It’s most of them,” one told me at the start of my ride-along, to learn about the street scene.
West Ridge Security patrols the commercial downtown for the Maple Ridge Business Improvement Association.
The parkade is our first stop.
“They’ll do drugs here, or just sleep,” says the driver. “Sometimes, someone builds a fire – to heat a can of beans, or stay warm. It’s dangerous. There’s a gas line here.”
Fires and people shooting up aren’t good for business. West Ridge moves street folk along to ease the problem for any one shop owner. Usually this happens without argument, but sometimes, drivers are verbally abused, and often threatened, sometimes with knives.
We move onto 224th Street, down Dewdney Trunk Road to 228th Street, then south, along side streets and alleys before heading east on Lougheed Highway to another hot spot – the alley behind the bottle depot at the edge of the business district.
The homeless are everywhere with shopping carts, sitting on benches. The driver points out a man who talks to himself all day.
The area around 222nd Street and Selkirk Avenue attracts prostitutes. They move along when citizens complain, but come back.
On 224th St. again we check another alley. Behind a restaurant, the driver points out dumpsters.
“Another place you’ll find people doing drugs, or sleeping.”
There’s nobody here, but we find a man asleep on the commercial parking lot opposite the school board office on Brown Avenue.
“I told him it was warmer in the sun,” reports the driver, “and where he can get a better rest.”
“It’s a sad picture,” I suggest.
Mayor Nicole Read says she’s committed to find effective strategies to address homelessness and addiction as soon as possible.
“We’re seeing more property crime,” she told me, “hearing from residents about needles in parks. There are people who fear for their safety. We need to address that. It’s the reason we’ve enacted a task force.”
The task force includes Read, Couns. Bob Masse and Gordy Robson.
Daryll Pilgrim, co-chair of the local Housing Planning Table, said in a recent article that there’s “a wide range of disorders our city doesn’t have answers for right now.”
Answers for a town’s survival will demand drastic changes. We’ll have to house people locally and treat their mental illness at home because they’re not going anywhere.
The task force reports publicly Feb. 10.
– Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.