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‘Nowhere else to go’: Homeless camps pop up in Terrace

Not many safe places exist for refuge in the city, homeless community says
Ten tents are set up within the camp on a vacant property across the highway from Walmart, with occupants ranging from 22 years old to 50. (Natalia Balcerzak/Photo)

Light rain fell on six people gathered around what’s now a well-known grouping of 10 tents. They opened umbrellas to keep dry.

The camp is set up on a vacant property across the highway from Walmart, with occupants ranging from 22 years old to 50. Its visibility to drivers has heightened discussions in Terrace about the city’s homeless population as city officials, the public and those affected add their perspectives to the situation.

“We have people coming from Alberta, and Saskatchewan, people that we’ve never seen around here before that are coming to the shelters all the time now,” says homeless advocate Miriam McKay.

McKay believes the initial closure of Ksan Society’s extreme weather shelter may have resulted in these people setting up tents and temporary campsites like the one across from Walmart. Even though the shelter reopened until the poor weather passed, some preferred camping in small groups rather than squeezing into shelters often full to capacity.

READ MORE: BC Housing does an about-face to reopen Terrace damp shelter

Liam Jennisin, 22, is among them. He says he moved from Vancouver a few months ago. Though he’s new to Terrace, he says he believes others are doing the same for the job opportunities with LNG Canada and other industrial projects in the region.

A May report summarizing findings from the Northern Valley Rangers two-month downtown security pilot program confirmed people on the streets are from across the province, from Prince Rupert, Terrace, Nass Valley, Kitimat, Kitwanga, New Hazelton, Prince George and as far as Vancouver.

The report also noted as LNG Canada’s facility in Kitimat moves toward construction, more people will be moving into the area in search of work. The report cites concerns that if more people come in search of employment, there is a high possibility of them not being hired and ending up on the streets.

Jennisin was recently hired to pick up discarded needles with Terrace’s upcoming Clean Team initiative.

“I was doing it for free at the beginning, the amount of needles and garbage I picked up was ridiculous,” he says.

He hears the general concern and disdain directed at the homeless and hopes to see a dialogue emerge that doesn’t exclude the homeless from the conversation with the public and policymakers.

“If you’re not fully certain on what the situation is, it’s best not to be ignorant or have prejudice. Reaching conclusions on stuff you don’t actually know about can create a tidal wave of negativity in the society that’s supposedly trying to help,” he says.

Jennisin believes many homeless in Terrace feel unsafe in most places around the city, and says the camp near Walmart formed as a safe place where the homeless wouldn’t be underfoot of the general population and pushed away.

“There are not enough resources for people to hang out when they have nowhere else to go,” he says. “It’s either here or public areas…If [there were] more services like having the soup kitchen open right after the shelter closes, they wouldn’t have to loiter in places where people often complain about.”

READ MORE: Who’s responsible for picking up needles in Terrace?

The homeless camps seem to have divided Terrace residents on how to approach the situation. Many have contacted the Terrace Standard over public safety concerns while others are calling for more resources to lift the homeless out of their situation.

The Northern Valley Rangers conducted a homeless survey of their own and found some people were on a waiting list for the 52-unit BC Housing supportive housing project on Olson Ave., which after some delay is expected to open by the end of June.

Others do have homes, but choose to be out on the street because of their addictions, while some are victims of the wildfires last year.

The security team says they had a 98 per cent compliance rate with homeless residents, but concede some are a concern to public safety.

“People are not feeling safe; the public are being harassed and threatened when they don’t give up their change to panhandlers,” reads the report submitted to Terrace council May 27.

One woman claims the base for her baby stroller was stolen by a homeless person when she found it near the St. Matthew’s Anglican church loaded with various items.

Someone else created a group on Facebook trying to crowdsource donations for Terrace’s homeless.

City of Terrace staff have responded to five or six calls last month about temporary shelters set up around Ferry Island and Skeena River, but there’s very little officials can do for those concerned.

“It’s probably usual for spring but there does seem to be more folks around and more camp activity,” says David Block, director of development services.

The site, formally owned by Progressive Ventures, is private property, Block says, meaning the city’s bylaw officer doesn’t have jurisdiction. The city has contacted the new owners to bring them up to speed.

“As long as the individuals are not causing undue concern or ruckus and leaving huge messes, ultimately at the end of the day, it’s private property so it’s the owner’s responsibility to ask them to leave. We’re taking the position of keeping an eye on managing [the situation].

“The reality is, if they moved off that location they’re going to set up their tents somewhere else.”

Block says the fire department has spoken with the occupants about keeping any fires small and contained, and they are regularly monitoring the area. The city has also met with CN police officers who are keeping people away from the tracks that run behind Apsley St., as people have made holes in older parts of the fence, creating a path across the CN tracks to the camp.

READ MORE: Second person killed while crossing CN tracks in Terrace, B.C.

McKay says the only solution to seeing fewer camps like this is for more resources to lift people out of homelessness.

“Around 60 per cent of homeless are addicted to substances due to past trauma and there’s absolutely nowhere for them to go,” she says.

According to the city’s 2018 report on homelessness, 96 people were found homeless on the day of the study, April 18, a 28 per cent increase over the past four years’ averages. The study also found 46 per cent cited high rents as the main barrier to housing, followed by low income at 34 per cent, and addictions at 31 per cent — 50 per cent admitted to living with addictions in general.

“This year meth is a real problem,” Jennisin says.

RCMP Cst. Jeff Campbell confirmed the rising meth problem in Terrace to city council on Monday.

“My first year? Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol. The second year? Crystal meth hit hard,” he says. “It’s cheaper, we have a lot of new addicts and changes in behaviour.”

Jennisin says coordinating services so people aren’t left without a place to go would help loitering issues, such as having the soup kitchen open right after the homeless shelter closes.

“There needs to be a shelter or community service that is throughout the day, at least from six to eight at night so we don’t have the complaints of people loitering. That’s why people harass homeless people because they’re sick of seeing them on the street, but this is our home.”

The security patrol reported moving between five to eight people a day from the downtown core as they waited for the shelter to open at 4 p.m. They had no other choice but to comply and move on.

The difficulties of being visibly homeless is reiterated by a 33-year old woman from Smithers who says she has been staying at the camp near Walmart for the last couple weeks. She says she was attacked in the dark while walking around Thornhill, and because of anti-loitering laws, she is often kicked out of restaurants, bus stops, or other public places just for being there.

She says she’s been homeless since she was 13 years old, after running away from an abusive foster care family.

And like many others, she lacked resources to process the violence and abuse she experienced when she was young.

“We’re no different from anyone else, just because we don’t have a car or a house doesn’t mean we’re shitty people. We have hearts, we have thoughts, we have feelings.”

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The camp’s visibility to drivers on the highway has heightened discussions in Terrace about the city’s homeless population. (Natalia Balcerzak/Photo)