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‘Tent city’ and homelessness a polarizing issue in Terrace

City of Terrace gives an update, says province should step in to help with housing, mental health
More than 40 people, including business owners, social workers, and concerned residents packed into the council chambers to hear an update on ‘tent city’ on July 17. (Brittany Gervais photo)

The city’s mayor and chief administrative officer plan to travel to Victoria this fall to demand action on the root causes of Terrace’s homelessness crisis.

The city announced its intention during a committee of the whole meeting on July 17 on what’s commonly known as “Tent City” on the north side of Keith Ave just west of the Dudley Bridge.

The tents were erected on private property back in April,varying in number from four to 12, with residents ranging between the ages of 22-50.

Its visibility to drivers has escalated debate about the city’s homeless population and the problems perceived to come from it.

Around 40 people including business owners, social service workers and concerned residents listened to city staff discuss the current situation. Despite the high public turnout, the audience was not given a chance to contribute to the discussion, as is customary for Committee of the Whole meetings.

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

David Block, the city’s development officer, and bylaw officer Dwayne Sheppard say staff have spoken with the current landowners about the site formally owned by Progressive Ventures. Because the camp is on private property city has very little power over the situation.

A developer representative, who lives in Kitimat, will be sending crews to the property in the coming weeks to start removing trees and leveling the property, Sheppard says.

“The property owner is willing to clean it and willing to do some site [preparation] on that area…I want to narrow down a date so we can hold him accountable to that date, and if we don’t see any action on that, then we can come up with another plan of action to get the property owner involved,” he says.

“They’re not going to go into a full development permit, but they do want to make the site more visible to the public and not create these areas that can create these unwanted activities.”

It’s expected that once the occupants are asked to leave they will migrate to a different part of the city. Within the last few weeks, Block says tents have appeared on another vacant property.

“I recognize that people will be going from one site to another site, that just means we’re going to have to keep repeating this process over and over again,” Coun. James Cordeiro says.

With a limited budget and lack of resources, the city says it’s taxing for staff to facilitate a comprehensive strategy.

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“It’s challenging when we are faced with mental health issues that are not within the purview of a municipality. We are challenged by the alcohol and addiction issues that are also not within our area of expertise,” Terrace Mayor Carol Leclerc.

Over the last year, the city has met with the Terrace District Improvement Area (TDIA), the Chamber of Commerce, Northern Health, Ksan Society, Kermode Friendship Society, the Terrace and District Community Services Society, and RCMP to discuss social issues facing Terrace residents.

In June, Ksan Society opened the Sonder House on Olsen Avenue, a supportive housing project with 52-units and 24/7 support for people currently experiencing homelessness. Though there are fewer tents since its opening, there are no more units available and a wait list is building.

Coun. Lynne Christiansen says the city has provided enough services and there needed to be a ‘balance’ restored between compassionate and punitive measures. During a recent bust in tent city, Terrace RCMP found and seized a stockpile of stolen goods and arrested two men in connection with the incident.

“I was born and raised here, and at this point, I’ve never seen the town look this bad,” Christiansen says, calling for swift action. “We need to sit down and look at what bylaws we can create to deal with it, what bylaws are there and how to enforce them.”

READ MORE: Terrace RCMP trying to reunite owners with stolen goods

Coun. Jessica McCallum-Miller says homelessness is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach, especially as Terrace’s population grows because of regional industrial developments.

The lack of municipal resources is what Coun. Sean Bujtas focused in on, noting housing and mental health is a provincial mandate, not a local one. He suggested finding allies among other communities facing similar concerns, banding together, and going to the province as a unit.

The city says they will also be speaking with the Minister of Housing during the Union of BC Municipalities meeting in September.

After the meeting, Terrace education counsellor Carol Passmore says she noticed how divisive people were on the issue. She says she believes facilitating an open space for community discussions could help find common ground between the two conflicting stances.

“It’s polarized between people who want to see better behaviour and something done, and people who are trying to understand the complexity of the issue,” Passmore says. “[Facebook] just becomes an echo chamber for each group. How do we [facilitate discussion to] hear all sides of the issue? We should embrace it for what it is. Embrace it for what it can teach us.”

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