Tensions are mounting as Abbotsford homeless people find their tents being taken down and items like blankets tossed in the middle of an extended cold snap, advocates say.
The issue turned confrontational last Friday between the homeless and bylaw, police, private security and a cleanup crew on Gladys Avenue across from the Salvation Army.
“For about an hour or so I can hear people screaming and yelling and freaking out,” said Peggy Allen, who lives across the street from the Gladys Avenue camp. “When I got there, this guy … was in the back of the recycling truck trying to get his stuff back. And he was extremely upset and just losing it.”
The Abbotsford Police Department says it only attends homeless camps when called on by other officials for public safety reasons. Sgt. Judy Bird said the force has, however, taken an active role in assisting homeless campers to get to shelters if they request it.
According to the city, the Gladys Avenue property is not protected by a 2016 B.C. Supreme Court ruling for homeless to camp out, as it is part of a road right-of-way. However, advocates have countered that it is public property all the same.
“City bylaw staff attend the Gladys corridor throughout the year to ensure that no one is camping on the city’s road right-of-way areas,” City of Abbotsford spokesperson Alex Mitchell said in an emailed statement.
“Under the city’s Street and Traffic Bylaw, camping is not permitted on city road right-of-way areas due to the high safety risk, which is heightened during inclement weather incidents like the ones we have been experiencing recently.”
Local advocates have dubbed the act of forcing homeless to pack up and move along the “Abbotsford shuffle.” Advocates say it is exhausting for homeless individuals, who may be seniors or people with disabilities, to pack up their entire lives to carry around with them until they can find a place to sleep for the night.
As that has persisted amid a weeks-long period of extreme weather, from wet snow and freezing rain to frigid winds, the frustration appears to have boiled over for those losing items like tents or blankets.
With that in mind, Allen said she also found herself losing her temper with the authorities on the scene.
“I don’t normally do that with them, but I’ve just had enough of it … Here’s the homeless who are freezing to death. They have nowhere to take their stuff where they’re not going to have it stolen, and it sucks all the way around,” Allen said.
“The guy that was jumping in and out of the truck was the reason that they were there because he was not letting them take his stuff, right? But it looked to me like they won and he did not.”
Pastor Ward Draper with 5 and 2 Ministries said he has seen authorities out multiple times during this extended stretch of extreme weather telling campers to move along.
“I’m just like, really? This is the day to be doing this? With -10, -15 wind chill, there’s snow falling, and you think it’s really important to keep enforcing these rules? Can’t there be some sort of allowance?”
Draper acknowledges that the conflicts can be aggravated from both sides, but said there’s “got to be some bigger picture.”
“There have to be better ways; we still haven’t figured it out. I don’t know if we ever will. But if it’s snowing and it’s below zero, is this really a good idea?” Draper said. “It’s not like we have anywhere for people to go. No matter what people say, we still don’t.”
Extreme weather shelters can’t turn people away during nights designated as extreme weather, but Draper said the 167 shelter beds available aren’t enough.
“We have over 300 people on the street. The math is not lining up. It’s not like people have choices. There’s not this long list of options,” Draper said.
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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter
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