Paul Fletcher watches three dozen Canada geese waddle up and onto the North Cowichan municipal dike and then slip into the still water of Somenos Marsh.
In years past, Fletcher wandered just as easily through this ecological jewel of the Cowichan Valley on southern Vancouver Island.
Not today. The founder and president of Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society carefully chooses where he goes, not sure what he will encounter.
Somenos Marsh is a newly designated, 155-hectare provincial wildlife management area featuring critical habitat for fish, including wild salmon, and home to endangered Garry oak ecosystems and more than 200 species of birds.
Of late, the marsh is also home to people who are homeless and use drugs. That’s putting the ecosystem at risk while diverting up to $30,000 per year in conservation dollars to clean up hazardous waste and other garbage.
It’s made Somenos Marsh home to a social crisis so widespread it blurs beyond urban back alleys into nature reserves like this one.
“I’ve been into a lot of the camps, checking them out,” Fletcher says against a flooded backdrop of birch, red-osier dogwood, willows and reed canary grass on the shore of Somenos Lake.
He doesn’t do that anymore for fear of an altercation. “It’s not every homeless person, but there are some that are off-centre with drugs and they could put people at risk.”
The day The Tyee visited Somenos Marsh no people were present at two campsites that clearly had been recently inhabited. The Tyee is not aware of any reported assaults in the marsh.
“It’s a real challenge for us,” confirms Tom Reid, who manages the marsh on behalf of a coalition of partners — the B.C. and federal governments, the Nature Trust of B.C., Ducks Unlimited Canada and Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation.
“I understand the social issues. You can see the human side of it. People are really struggling. But at the same time, we’re trying to stay focused on our mandate for fish and wildlife, species at risk and the ecology of Somenos Marsh.”
With land, location is everything — and Somenos Marsh is no different.
Situated just east of Highway 1 in North Cowichan next to the city of Duncan, the marsh is conveniently close to the services afforded by an urban centre, with the bonus of dense forest in which to hide.
Warmland House is only a two-minute walk away, offering emergency shelter, transitional housing, and other social services for men and women suffering from mental illness, addiction and chronic health conditions.
James Tousignant, executive director of the Cowichan Valley branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, argues it’s too easy to blame Warmland House for the troubles afflicting Somenos Marsh.
The proximity of Thrifty Foods, Tim Hortons, Starbucks and McDonald’s are just as easily factors, he says.
“It doesn’t have to come from here. That’s the assumption that people in the community make, that it’s the people in Warmland that are causing the problem. But those people are in Warmland, not in the marsh.”
About six times a year, a small team enters the marsh to urge squatters to leave while also trying to connect them with social services that can help — offering a way out of the swamp, so to speak.
Either an RCMP officer or a provincial conservation officer are present along with conservation representatives, outreach workers, municipal bylaw officers and members of Cowichan Tribes.
The team typically goes in one day, informs people they are trespassing, and gives them 24 hours to move out on their own or face being rousted by authorities.
It can take contractors up to five days to remove the litter. The same site can be trashed again within 72 hours, says Reid.
“It can get pretty discouraging,” he says, noting there’s no point in pursuing charges or court action against individuals who have no resources to pay. “To what end? We wouldn’t recover our expenses.”
The camps accumulate tarps, sleeping bags, couches, fast-food wrappers, pill bottles and hypodermic needles.
You might also find Naloxone, a medication used to reverse the potentially fatal effects of an opioid overdose from a drug such as fentanyl. According to the provincial coroner’s office, there were 240 illicit drug-overdose deaths on Vancouver Island in 2017, up from 45 in 2012.
Some of the garbage spills into the marsh, contaminating waters that nurse young salmon, frogs and other aquatic life.
“The mess left is incredible, a shocking amount of material,” Reid confirms. “There’s no doubt it’s having an impact on the ecosystem.”
Fletcher looks out into the marsh and sees debris large and small poking above the waterline. “We’ve taken a real beating down here,” he laments.
Society volunteers scoop up debris as they are able. “We are very careful. I have needles in the back of my trunk right now in a container.”
It’s all time and conservation dollars wasted, Fletcher notes. “That’s money that isn’t being spent [productively] here on the marsh. That’s the big issue for us.”
In the past, managers of the marsh had to deal, say, with the occasional backpacker staying overnight on the way to Tofino, but nothing on this scale.
“It creates a challenge for site safety,” Reid continues. “We’ve had people come out of their tent and tell us off, get right in our face and pointing at us.”
The farmer contracted to work the marsh’s agricultural land worries that discarded needles may wind up in his livestock feed.
“There’s a whole slew of trickle-down impacts,” Reid says.
Not all the ecological challenges are so obvious. Nearby, people inside their houses pose a different threat to Somenos Lake and its sister Quamichan Lake, notes the Cowichan Watershed Board website.
Choking algae grows in both due to “excessive nutrient loading from the farms and homes which surround the lakes.”
Chris Hall, a director of Cowichan Housing Association, says the camps popped up in Somenos Marsh several years ago and proved especially attractive to homeless youths — in their teens to early 20s — including those in difficult family situations, such as foster care, or who don’t meet the minimum age requirement of 19 years to stay at Warmland House.
Other factors are high housing costs and youths “aging out” of the provincial system, Hall says. Mental illness and substance abuse contribute to the problem. “There’s a need for youth housing in our valley. There’s nothing specifically designated.”
Local initiatives underway include development of a respite program where youths could go to get away from home situations for a brief period, as well as a home where up to 12 youths could stay in a largely self-managed facility.
In the last municipal election, North Cowichan residents also voted to support a regional tax related to affordable housing and homelessness prevention. Initial work is underway with the Cowichan Valley Regional District to implement the housing fund program.
The clash between nature and homelessness and addiction at Somenos Marsh has been playing out to varying degrees throughout southwestern B.C.
For years, people have set up camps in the evergreen forests of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, where squirrels and skunks share the ecosystem with needles, used condoms and liquor bottles. Occasionally, homeless people are blamed for fires in the park.
North of Nanaimo, squatters occupy edges of Englishman River estuary in the Parksville-Qualicum Beach Wildlife Management area. The province considers the area to have “natural resources… outstanding on a global scale,” including millions of herring, more than 100,000 water birds and a rearing habitat for all Pacific salmon species as well as steelhead and coastal cutthroat trout.
In Goldstream Provincial Park north of Victoria on Highway 1, a group of homeless people last fall set up camp after being kicked out of nearby Saanich.
Back in the Duncan area, the Outdoor Recreation Council has named the Cowichan River one of the most endangered rivers in B.C. On its banks last October, volunteers collected more than 1,000 discarded needles.
Then, during a windstorm in December, a tree fell and killed a woman living in a tent near the river.
Case law on the issue has been sympathetic to the dispossessed.
In 2015, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that Abbotsford’s bylaws prohibiting homeless people from sleeping or being in a city park overnight or erecting a temporary shelter without permits are unconstitutional and violate the liberty and security of homeless people.
The ruling allowed people to erect shelters and sleep in the city’s public spaces and parks from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. City staff continue to patrol for garbage and debris, nuisance and noise disturbances, but also report that shelter beds in the Fraser Valley hub have increased to more than 120 from 26 since the court decision.
Reid says the situation is different in Somenos Marsh because much of the area, while managed provincially, technically remains in private rather than public conservation hands — those of Nature Trust and Ducks Unlimited.
“First and foremost, this is a homelessness issue,” insists Anna Cooper, a staff lawyer with Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society. “It’s not about Somenos Marsh — it’s about people who don’t have housing. There’s a reason homeless people keep winding up at the marsh. They’ve been given no other option of where to be.”
Shunting them from one spot to another is expensive and doesn’t work, she added, noting the practice is undignified and only adds to a person’s suffering. “That’s why they end up in parkland, because they quite literally cannot be left alone anywhere else. It’s an endless cycle of displacement that is really harmful, profoundly damaging to people.”
Municipal governments must do more to address homeless issues in their backyards, she argued, and stop “ignoring the fact that homeless people have to occupy a space. You can either choose where that space is or wait until one has been chosen.”
For now, the waters of Somenos Marsh remain muddied with the wrong choices for humans and nature alike.
Read more: Housing, Environment
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