The Cliff Avenue tent city is only the visible tip of the iceberg of homelessness in Maple Ridge, where people live in temporary camps hidden from sight throughout and around the city. The difference between Cliff Avenue and other Maple Ridge homeless camps is that Mayor Nicole Read has, throughout the spring and summer, ordered police and bylaw officers to leave Cliff Avenue campers alone while other camps have suffered their harassment. She justified this policy against overwhelming anti-homeless hate by saying she refused to hide poverty when it needed to be confronted. The situation hasn’t changed, so why has her policy?
In September Mayor Read announced that when the Rain City shelter opens she would take court and police action to close the Cliff Avenue tent city. The new winter shelter (and forty new rent subsidies) were won through an informal alliance between unacknowledged frontline activists at Cliff Avenue Tent City and Mayor Read, who have embarrassed the BC Liberal government by showing homelessness in the Lower Mainland to be the scandal that it is. But the Rain City shelter and a handful of temporary rent supplements will not house all (or even most) of Maple Ridge’s homeless.
Mama Bear says she, for one, doesn’t want to go to the shelter. Mama Bear, a leader in the camp, says Cliff Avenue is a place of safety and security for people who otherwise feel constantly insecure and harassed. “Once you are here in the camp you understand the importance of banding together and fighting together as a community,” she said. “This is our safe zone. When you come into this camp you are protected. No one will come and slash your tent when you’re out, no one will throw out your stuff. And when you’re in your tent, we look in on each other. If we know you’re mainlining we look in on you.” Mama Bear says that since Fentanyl hit the streets, there have been over twenty overdoses in the camp, but only one was fatal. Camp residents mourn the death they suffered but Mama Bear warns, “If we weren’t here there would have been twenty deaths. Our camp is saving lives.”
The closure of Cliff Avenue tent city will scatter the remaining homeless people there into wooded areas around the city where they will face constant bylaw officer harassment and theft and destruction of their belongings.
Dave, who lived for a month in a wooded area behind the White Spot, said he went back to his tent one evening to find a man had committed suicide, hanging from a tree. He says he felt traumatized. “I couldn’t go back for a couple days because I just couldn’t handle being there.” When he did go back two days later, “I got there just in time to see the bylaw officers slashing up my tent and throwing all my stuff in a garbage truck,” he said. “That’s what they do if you’re homeless and they find you somewhere besides Cliff Avenue.”
Some tenters at Cliff Avenue have talked about moving the camp to stick together and support each other against a danger bigger than police: anti-homeless vigilantes. Mike says that before Cliff Avenue was established, he and a few others set up tents in an empty lot off Lougheed Highway. Men came in the night in four-wheel drive trucks and drove over their tents, not even knowing if there was anyone inside. Some think a bigger, organized presence, like they have established at Cliff Avenue, will provide “safety in numbers” against such violence, while maintaining pressure on the government for a permanent place to tent, and more social housing.
As Mama Bear said, “If they take down this camp people will come back. I have been camping here for years and I’ll stay camping here.”