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Rights + Justice

Homeless by the Tracks and the Rising River

Despite the dangers, many prefer sheltering in remote areas to being repeatedly displaced in a city.

Christopher Cheung 22 Jul

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

In Maple Ridge, between the railroad tracks and the Fraser River, there’s a thin strip of land with just enough trees for A.J. and others to stay out of sight.

A.J. has been homeless on and off for 10 years. He spent some time at the Anita Place Tent City, located on 223rd Street and St. Anne Avenue between 2017 and 2019, where he and others faced everything from local residents who wanted them gone to aggressive rats that came regularly to feast at the encampment. A.J., who’s good with his hands, built a lot of traps while living there.

One of the biggest challenges for homeless people is being asked to move again and again by police, bylaw officers and security guards. Aside from being personally distressing, it also affects their health. It interrupts their sleep and pushes people to leave urban areas for locations where they’re more exposed to the elements.

That’s why A.J. decided to build a makeshift cabin in the trees by the Fraser River in Maple Ridge. There, he was able to shelter for six months without interruption until June, when the river began to swell.

“I got flooded out. The water came up to here,” said A.J. one recent morning, pointing to his waist. “My bed was raised. And every day, the water kept getting higher because of the nice weather and the melt coming down.”

The province had issued a high streamflow advisory for the Fraser, which lasted from June 9 to July 19. Like A.J. said, this happens when the weather heats up quickly, causing the rapid melt of snow at higher elevations. The resulting water pours into the river, raising its flow. Some of the biggest floods in the Fraser’s history have happened during this risky time of year, when spring turns into summer.

“I’ve never seen it this high,” said Tracy Scott, co-founder of the Maple Ridge Street Outreach Society. “There used to be a bit of a beach and you could take your dogs out for a walk. Now, there’s nothing, not even the riverbank.”

Scott, who spent three years homeless herself, is now an advocate for those without shelter in her city. She says there were between 30 to 50 people living in the woods before the water rose. Now, she estimates there to be about 10.

There’s a lot of wildlife here: cougars, coyotes, beavers and due to the high river and warm weather, relentless mosquitos.

Kari Chartrand, who grew up in Maple Ridge, a city of 90,000 people, knows the area well. She’s 25 years old and has been homeless on and off since the middle of high school. She says she submitted living in a tent as part of her gym credits, which was “super funny but really sucked.”

Chartrand and her husband no longer shelter in the area, but have camped all along the river in the time they have been homeless for the same reason A.J. did: it was out of sight.

Chartrand was tired of being “hunted like an animal” by local residents on their phones.

“We just sit on the sidewalk, for crying out loud,” she said. “We’re just sitting there having a meal or just to relax because our bags get so heavy. And automatically, someone calls bylaw or the police. Once we got moved — I’m not even joking — 12 times in one night.”

Aside from the risks associated with wildlife and the rising river, it’s also necessary to cross CP rail tracks to reach the area.

“Sometimes you don’t realize how close you are,” said Chartrand’s husband, Nico. “I had my backpack on before and [the train] knocked me down. Good thing it didn’t pull me in.”

A friend of the couple died in an accident on the tracks last year and they’ve avoided sheltering in the area since because of the trauma.

While the trio has been facing these conundrums about where to shelter in and around Maple Ridge, the issue of whether to shelter in city cores or more remote locations is one facing homeless people across the Lower Mainland.

Union Gospel Mission runs a Mobile Mission team out of a van that drives out to those remote locations to check on people who are homeless and harder to find. The items they hand out are seasonal, from hot drinks and socks in the winter to water bottles and sunscreen in the summer. They also check if individuals need help with getting identification or government benefits.

For many, a remote location — despite the dangers it comes with — means freedom from the stresses that come with being homeless in populated areas, from having possessions stolen to dehumanizing encounters, says UGM spokesperson Nicole Mucci.

Those encounters could be unwanted attention, like a housed resident calling the police when spotting someone like Chartrand on the street with all their possessions.

“Emergency services are great if you see a person who is in actual need of assistance,” said Mucci. “But if you see somebody who’s just occupying space in the world, maybe just let them have that space. Every single one of them is a human being worthy of compassion, respect and dignity.”

Other times, the encounters are with people who try not to notice them.

“A lot of people who’ve experienced homelessness have shared with us how hurtful it is when people purposefully avoid making eye contact with them in urban centres, so they choose to remove themselves. Getting out into nature can really help them move away from that stigma,” Mucci said.

Some people who camp in remote areas might actually be on the top of a waitlist for permanent housing and on the cusp of moving in, she added. But in the process of accumulating items for their move, they might not be able to stay at a shelter due to limits about how many belongings they can bring in.

Mucci says she and the mobile team have been increasingly thinking about what worsening climate change will mean for homeless people because of the extreme weather events that have happened in the past year, from the heat dome to the record-breaking cold winter and last November’s Abbotsford flood.

One encampment of 50 people at the edge of Abbotsford’s Sumas Prairie was displaced when the area flooded last November.

“For someone who’s further out and further isolated, they might be in more danger because they can easily get dehydrated, heat stroke or, in the case of extreme cold, hypothermia,” said Mucci. “They don’t have the same ability to regulate as somebody who’s housed and isn’t constantly in a fight-or-flight mode.”

If it wasn’t for the river flooding his cabin, A.J. says he would’ve preferred to stay there.

He had no choice but to look for shelter somewhere else. He found a room that was being rented out at a local mobile home park and decided to take it.

A.J. feels like his life is “turning around” after taking some courses and finding work.

But moving out of a makeshift cabin by the river and into formal housing is a big jump with a different kind of obstacle: monthly rent. A.J. is currently paying $1,300.

He says as someone who’s only employed part time, “It’s way too much.”


Hot, Hot Housing is a reported column on the housing crisis in Vancouver and beyond, published in The Tyee every Friday. Got housing stories of your own? Whether it’s market hijinks, tenancy horrors or survival tips, you can email us at  [Tyee]

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