Despite conflicts, homeless and homeowners want the same thing, pastor says

Homeless campers and frustrated residents all seek safety and security: Wegenast

A petition is circulating among Abbotsford residents frustrated with a nearby homeless camp.

But the recurring push-and-pull between the homeless campers and frustrated taxpaying homeowners won’t be addressed until the core problem of housing is addressed, according to a local advocate.

The petition organizer, who asked that her name and exact location not be shared, says she is at her wit’s end dealing with homeless people camped near her property.

“I thought I had found my forever home,” the retiree says of the house she and her husband bought in 2015.

She says her dream home is much less comfortable than she had hoped. She’s nervous to stay home alone and to let her grandchildren play in her backyard when they visit, as disturbing sounds and smells rise from the wooded area behind her property.

There are approximately 25 people living in tents and improvised structures on private property adjacent to Lonzo Creek Park behind the Save-On-Foods at Sumas Way and South Fraser Way.

When a patch of trees was toppled in a windstorm last winter, the homeowner says a sound buffer was lost and she has been kept up at night by the sound of yelling coming from the woods. She says the smell emanating from the area is “enough to gag a maggot.”

The resident has begun circulating the petition in her neighbourhood and hopes it will spur more action from the city.

Pastor Jesse Wegenast, who works with the homeless community, says that both those who sign the petition and the people camped in the woods are on the same side.

“I would encourage people who find themselves leaning towards a particular group and away from another on either side to consider the fact that what everybody wants is really exactly the same thing, and that’s to feel safe and secure inside of their homes,” he said.

People have built a de facto community in the area for years, Wegenast said. The area includes AstroTurf flooring with fencing and an arched walkway built from branches. Some areas have art and a clock hanging from trees, all contributing to a sense of home in the woods.

They camp near one another for safety and security, which Wegenast says are elusive for people living on their own on Abbotsford streets, particularly for women, the disabled and those living with mental illness.

“To have some semblance of community is incredibly important,” he said.

But the nearby homeowners’ complaints should not be overlooked, Wegenast said.

“I understand the concerns,” he said. “They’re real, they’re not fake, they’re not stupid, they’re not illegitimate. They’re genuine concerns from real people who want the same thing as anyone who lives in this camp wants – they want safety and security of person and property.”

But, he said, the situation won’t improve until there are homes people can afford to rent.

“This type of situation is terrible,” Wegenast said. “We have citizens in our community who are living outside and there are dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of people sleeping outside in similar circumstances and that’s not just in your forests. It’s in your parking lots, it’s at the truck stops, it’s at the rest stops … ultimately it’s a detriment to the entire community.”

An employee of the company than owns the property said he could not speak to The News without his employer’s approval, which he did not get by press time.


@KelvinGawley
kelvin.gawley@abbynews.com

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Approximately 25 people live in tents and improvised structures in a wooded area behind the strip mall and Sumas Way and South Fraser Way in central Abbotsford. Kelvin Gawley/Abbotsford News

Approximately 25 people live in tents and improvised structures in a wooded area behind the strip mall and Sumas Way and South Fraser Way in central Abbotsford. Kelvin Gawley/Abbotsford News Approximately 25 people live in tents and improvised structures in a wooded area behind the strip mall and Sumas Way and South Fraser Way in central Abbotsford. Kelvin Gawley/Abbotsford News

Approximately 25 people live in tents and improvised structures in a wooded area behind the strip mall and Sumas Way and South Fraser Way in central Abbotsford. Kelvin Gawley/Abbotsford News