Keeping safe down at the yard
THE RCMP cruiser glides up silently and stops right beside the driver side front window of CN Constable Jack Ashford’s own police vehicle.
“Whoa. Scared me there,” says a startled Ashford looking over his shoulder.
The two officers roll down their windows and begin speaking easily, exchanging first names, last names, nicknames and descriptions of the people they come into contact with daily along CN’s Terrace railyard.
“I saw the two of them just several hours ago,” concludes Ashford of two people who frequent the track area and with that, the two officers say good-bye and the RCMP officer drives away.
To many, the people Ashford knows down on the tracks are homeless drinkers, mostly middle-age or older aboriginal men not wanted within the downtown core of the city.
But to him they’re a family – a community. “With dignity and respect. That’s how I like to treat them,” said Ashford of the homeless population.
“Keep them safe. That’s my priority.”
It’s a job that intensified late last August when two people were killed within a week of each other.
Bernard Desjardins, 59, who was not one of the homeless community, tripped over a rail and fell and was killed by a train when he and a companion tried to cross the railyard from the south side of the city to the north.
That was in the early evening hours of Aug. 26 and a few days later, Vanessa Harris, who was a member of the homeless community, got caught between two cars and was killed at 5:30 a.m. August 31 when the train began to move.
Their deaths resulted in renewed demands for more fencing along the railyard length to keep people off the tracks, and calls for a pedestrian overpass to make it easier and safer to cross.
Ashford’s motto of dignity and respect took an immediate and direct approach – thanks to a grant from the Royal Bank, two portable toilets supplied by West Point Rentals were installed, one along the fence line behind the Core store at the former Terrace Co-op property and the other farther east, below the curling rink parking lot in an area where a homeless camp flourished.
That was to avoid all too frequent reports of public defecation and urination simply because people had nowhere else to go.
The eastern end of the railyard, where Desjardins and Harris were killed, became a focal point for Ashford and others because it was the narrowest part of the railyard and thus the most attractive gathering place for homeless and the quickest, albeit dangerous, place to cross the tracks.
Following meetings between CN officials and the city after the deaths of Desjardins and Harris, the company installed 1,000 feet of fencing there, stretching east toward the old Skeena bridge.
It’s topped with three strands of barbed wire, and a locked gate near the access to J & F Distributors warehouse blocks.
A clean up of a homeless camp of six or seven tents there, was done through the city and a number of organizations, including two church groups, and has now calmed down activity in that area.
“Those tents could have caught fire. People could have died,” said Ashford as he surveyed the now cleaned-up spot where all that remains now is a fire pit.
But considerable lengths of the railyard, both on its north and south sides remain open, to not only the homeless but to those tempted to cross the tracks.
For Debbie Letawski those gaps and the ongoing temptation to cross simply means that more people are going to die.
“It’s just a matter of time,” she said.
If there’s anybody as familiar as Ashford about what goes on along the tracks it’s Letawski.
She manages the George Little House, the refurbished home of city founder George Little moved more than a decade ago to the foot of Kalum, between the Sears outlet building and the former Co-op property.
It’s also the Via Rail station and as such, its location on the tracks is the closest building to the homeless community’s daily activities of gathering to drink, defecate and worse.
At first she’d let people use the building’s washrooms, but no longer.
“I’d build up a rapport with them but then the dynamics would change and I’d have to start all over again,” said Letawski.
“And now I say ‘no’. It became a matter of safety and security [for the people who work in the building].”
Safety and security was one of the reasons to install those two portable toilets.
They’re returning this spring and their costs will be covered by the remainder of the Royal Bank grant which is now being administered by the Terrace Downtown Improvement Association.
At the George Little House itself, more fencing is being planned should the city be successful in receiving a Transport Canada grant.
It’s tucked away $10,000 in its capital budget this year for a $40,000 project and hopes the remainder will be provided next month during Rail Safety Week.
The majority of the fencing will extend west from the George Little House along the old Co-op site property line and there will be a shorter section just east of the George Little House.
A berm just outside and to east of the George Little House will also be reconfigured to dissuade drinking and defecation.
Still, for Letawski, solving the problem on the tracks is a much greater one than fencing.
“What we really need is a regional detox centre here,” she said.
“I’m seeing more and more people here. Young people being addicted, young women too.”
As for Ashford, although based in Prince Rupert most of his time is spent here, patrolling both sides of the roughly one a half miles of the railyard as it runs through the middle of the city.
“What I also do is try to educate,” he said while parked and keeping a wary eye on the rails.
“I had one guy from out of town who said his friend said it was OK to be here. Well no, it’s not,” he said.
“These trains are a mile long and they just can’t stop.”