Months after a homeless camp in Maple Ridge was shut down due to fire concerns and other safety issues, residents say new fire fears are being sparked by a growing number of homeless encampments cropping up in the city’s residential areas.
On Saturday, a group of residents took matters into their own hands in the Cottonwood neighbourhood, cleaning up a ravine bordering homes where there is evidence homeless people have been camping.
“They’re starting fires, and as you can see, my home is about 30 feet away,” resident Susan Einarsson told Global News.
The backyard of Einarsson’s Maple Ridge property is adjacent to the forested area, and she’s concerned about what could happen if any campfires burn out of control.
“My worst fear is that these fires at night will burn our homes and possibly kill people.”
Einarsson and her neighbours removed piles of used needles and broken glass from the campsite.
In an email to Global News, Maple Ridge Mayor Mike Morden said the city’s bylaws department attended the camp three times prior to the residents taking action, with police also responding on Saturday.
Morden said the city’s operations department has been tasked to clean up the area but “city services are overloaded responding to persons setting up camps, making a tremendous mess, hoarding of all kinds of acquired property along with the proliferation of refuse and drug paraphernalia.”
“These encampments have popped up everywhere,” said Joanne Mitchell, a Maple Ridge resident who used to live in Cottonwood.
While Morden doesn’t recommend citizens go it alone and says the public to report any encampments to the city, he did express appreciation for “those neighbours who on their own initiative did their best to clean up the mess.”
Morden also said he understands residents’ frustrations, and is particularly concerned about “the lighting of fires that puts everyone at greater risk” as fire season approaches.
Back in February, a rash of fires at Maple Ridge’s unofficial homeless camp off Lougheed Highway led to it being deemed unsafe and eventually shut down.
When the province later said the city of Maple Ridge wasn’t doing enough to house the homeless displaced from the camp, it stepped in to build low barrier modular housing.
In an April interview, Housing Minister Selina Robinson told Global News modular housing is the best temporary solution until a permanent one can be found.
“We’ve worked with 22 different communities to deliver on this kind of housing where we’ve housed 1,000 people who were formerly homeless,” Robinson said.
The mayor and many Maple Ridge residents don’t want to see another low barrier shelter that will allow substance abuse, and claim it won’t help people struggling with addiction.
Morden says housing alone won’t solve homelessness. Instead, he wants to see detox, treatment and long-term recovery services, and said a community safety plan is being developed to “address both sides of the problem…including appropriate enforcement, prevention, housing and health.”
Meantime, locals says they’ll fight to keep their neighbourhoods safe.
“I’m horrified at what it’s become,” Mitchell said.
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