Here, with no place to go: a snapshot of homelessness in the Tri-Cities

In this story we take a look at homelessness in the Tri-Cities through the eyes of two outreach workers trying to get people off the street. Out of respect to the recovery process, some people are only identified by their first name.

The situation isn’t progressing.

The Kia Soul heads east against midday traffic. In the front seat, two Hope for Freedom Society outreach worker talk about Randy.

We’ll meet him later.

It’s been a year since Randy parked his RV in a Port Coquitlam neighbourhood dotted with thriving new businesses and flanked by big box stores on one side and a golf club on the other.

Kevin W. and Amanda F. are a team. Kevin’s the wheelman. Amanda’s the navigator.

They’re both in recovery from addiction.

Amanda’s fast talking and funny. She’s seen addiction at its worst. She lost her father to an overdose when she was 11 years old. At her worst, she says, she used “hardcore,” like nothing else mattered. As she says this, she’s mainly focused on making sure Kevin gets his coffee.

“There’s a Timmy’s here,” she says, pointing her partner to a drive-through.

Amanda is something rare: a realist and an optimist. She sees hardship every day but she still manages to have a sense of enthusiasm about the future like a kid on the first day of summer vacation.

Kevin’s voice is deep and textured with years of cigarettes. He chooses his words carefully and speaks with the total honesty of someone who’s been deceived and didn’t care for it at all. In 22 days he’ll have one year of sobriety. It’s part of the reason Randy’s situation is personal to him.

“He’s basically where I was a year ago,” Kevin says of Randy. “Those are the ones that get to me the most.”

The last time they visited the neighbourhood Randy was in a bad way. He’d been drinking more than usual and fell down. They called the police and the paramedics.

That was a mistake, Amanda says. There’s no Car 67 in the Tri-Cities, she says.

“You just want the paramedics, you don’t want the police,” she says.

After last time, she’s worried about Randy.

“He has told us that he just wants to be left alone to die.”


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Police response

In Surrey, the Car 67 program puts police and mental health services hand-in-hand.

From the early afternoon until after midnight, Car 67 does crisis intervention, risk assessments and mental health services.

There’s a petition to bring that program, or something very much like it, to the Tri-Cities.

It’s a rare idea where “everybody’s on side,” notes RCMP Supt. Insp. Andrew Martin at a recent Port Coquitlam council meeting. But it hasn’t happened yet.

On average, Coquitlam RCMP respond to about three mental health calls every day. About 10 percent of the time that means a distraught person with a weapon, usually a knife. But more commonly it means apprehending someone in distress and spending almost two hours at the hospital.

It’s part of the job but not part of the training, Martin says, noting that RCMP cadets receive “very limited” mental health training.

It’s also not something they dress for, Martin adds, noting the gun, Taser and bulletproof vest covered with magazines.

For someone who’s scared, the tactical look is not a reassuring sight. It’s why Martin wants to “soften” the uniform. He put forward a vision of an officer and a mental health nurse working together.

At least some people have their doubts. Fraser Health will not dispatch mental health practitioners to Coquitlam RCMP, says Port Coquitlam Coun. Steve Darling.

“As much as I think this is a great idea . . . I just don’t think they have the capacity to do it,” Darling says.

Martin knows Fraser Health is dealing with a lot. Still, he emphasizes the importance of prevention when it comes to people who need mental health services.

“Let’s not wait for that call to come in to be a police call.”

graph supplied B.C. Coroners Service


Amanda and Kevin start the day with the “PoCo crawl,” a zigzagging patrol that takes them to bathrooms, hollowed out trees and under bridges between Lions Park and Leigh Square looking for people who need help.

“People with suitcases and backpacks will always attract my attention,” Amanda says. “It sucks first thing in the morning.”

She and Kevin hand out gloves, first-aid kits, 7/11 gift cards and compass cards. There’s a spot at Metrotown where homeless people can get a shower, Amanda notes.

Amanda’s got 14 years of sobriety. Things were different back then, she reflects.

“The drugs weren’t killing everybody at that point,” Kevin adds.

B.C. recorded 498 drug toxicity deaths in the first three months of 2021. Last year it was 268. In 2012 it was 62.

In 84 percent of those deaths, fentanyl was detected. In 2012, fentanyl was found in five percent of fatal overdoses.
They stop the car at 3030 Gordon Avenue.

“This is a shit show,” Amanda announces.

Amanda strikes up a conversation with a couple of the people standing outside the shelter and asks if anyone’s interested in getting vaccinated.

There’s no interest in the vaccine, Amanda reports. Some suspect it’s a tracking device, she adds.

Still, they plan to head out with a nurse in May and administer as many vaccines as they can.

The phone rings and Amanda takes the call.

Her phone always seems to be ringing.

The calls come from people who are homeless and people who are about to be homeless. With each new caller Amanda and Kevin add another folder to the accordion file in the backseat.

Later, Amanda digs into the files and reads a few at random: a single mom, a new immigrant, a man living in an SRO in the Downtown Eastside.

Amanda takes another call and Kevin sips an extra-large Tim Hortons coffee. He starts talking about last week when they pulled up and saw something in the vacant lot just up the road.

It looked like a folded-up mattress at first but when they got closer they saw it was a person.
They had Narcan at the ready.

He was covered in dirt, Kevin says. He didn’t like the way he was living but he wasn’t ready for treatment.

And from last week Kevin is thinking about the last few years.

He was still in a bad place then. He’d lost a lot of relatives when his wife went into a diabetic coma and didn’t come out.

He started drinking a lot after that. He lost his job in Fort McMurray. He’d been in and out of the hospital for alcohol poisoning when an old friend sent him a plane ticket.

She wanted him to come to B.C. and get into treatment.

“If you’re not on that plane, lose my number,” she told him.

Kevin got on the plane.

“Changed my life,” he says.

Amanda comes back from the phone call.

“B.C. Housing gives our number to everyone,” she says, presenting me with the nine-page form for people in need of housing.

The form is a chance for housing, Amanda says.

“We have people that have been on that list for 10 or more years. A lot of them seniors.”

It doesn’t help that basement suites range from $1,300 to $1,800.

“You need two grand off the smack,” she says, listing phone costs, groceries and moving fees. “It’s just unattainable.”

Back in the car, Amanda talks about the challenges of helping people sleeping rough. Anything you give is going to be something they have to carry everywhere they go.

“Not everybody wants socks, but everybody gives out socks,” she says. “They pretty much tell me to go hoop myself. ‘I don’t need socks. Do you see all the socks I got? I need a cheap place to live.’”

Amanda and Kevin head out loaded with supplies and files. photo Jeremy Shepherd

Abhorring a vacuum

There is an answer to the affordability crisis but it hasn’t arrived in the Tri-Cities yet, according to Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA Selina Robinson.

Robinson, who also serves as Minister of Finance, discussed the acute lack of affordable housing and supportive housing during a recent budget recap with the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re coming off of a couple of decades where neither the federal nor the provincial government was building housing,” she notes.

More recently, there was a period in which the housing market was flooded with 600-700 square foot condos. Now, with low interest rates and the mortgage stress test scheduled to change June 1, British Columbians, particularly those telecommuters looking for more space for a home office, there’s tremendous pressure on the housing market, Robinson says.

“We need to get more of the right product out in communities,” she emphasizes.

In a bid to ensure communities get that product, local governments are required to complete a housing needs assessment by 2022, and then once every five years.

It may not be a “sexy piece of legislation,” Robinson acknowledges. “But it’s a critical piece.”

Previously, local governments could operate “in a vacuum,” Robinson point out, making decisions without data about their current housing stock or: “what they’re going to need.”

In the short-term, the provincial government is planning supportive housing projects in Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Vernon and Kamloops.

“I would love to see local governments in the Tri-Cities join with us. It hasn’t happened yet. It makes me incredibly sad,” Robinson says.

There are 100 units of low to moderate income housing coming to 551 Emerson St. in Coquitlam and 55 similar units slated for 2318 St. Johns St. in Port Moody.

However, for a major shift to happen, a local government has to pick a property and say: “We have some land over here where we can house 50 people who are homeless in our community,” Robinson tells the chamber. “That’s all we need.”

But there are challenges around the Tri-Cities, according to the finance minister.

“ . . . around the Tri-Cities, everyone gets to say: ‘No, it’s the other guy,’” she says, pointing her hands in opposite directions.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” she continues, “if all three municipalities stepped forward and said, ‘Let’s do it here.’”

Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA Selina Robinson says a few words at the Local Government Leadership Academy. photo supplied

On the frontline

It’s hard to connect with people during the pandemic, Amanda explains.

If you wear a mask or hang back they might distrust you. If you don’t do those things you might get COVID-19.

The Kia dips past Nicola Lodge. Randy’s father was a patient there. He died earlier this year, Kevin notes.

The RV is parked in its usual place.

Across the street, Amanda and Kevin meet up with Wade Usborne. As Fraser Health’s community mental health and substance use services liaison for the Tri-Cities, Usborne knows Randy a bit.

They talk about his medicine, his mental state, the inside of the RV.

“I guess it comes down to: what is he willing to accept?” Usborne asks.

After a quick conference, they knock on his door and windows.

There’s a squealing sound as Randy pulls open his window.

Randy says he’s fine.

For a moment, it seems like it might be a short conversation.

“How were your cheeseburgers?” Amanda asks.

Randy smiles a bit. “Oh, brilliant,” he replies. You get the feeling it’s been a while since he smiled at anybody. Then he levels with them.

“To be honest with you, I think I’m close to dying,” he says.

His sister, mother and father all died in succession.

“There’s nobody left but me. Even my cat’s dead,” he says. “I’ve got nowhere to go and everybody wants me out of here.”

“I don’t want you out of here,” Amanda tells him. “I just want you to be safe.”

City bylaw people asked him about leaving, he says, gesturing to the engine.

“The tranny’s gone. It won’t fire,” he says. “If you want to pay for the towing bill . . .”

Usborne tells him he’ll contact the bylaw department and see what they can figure out.

Randy parked there so he could be close to his father. Now that his father has passed away there’s nothing tethering him to the area and he can’t see a future in the RV.

“I’d like to get out of this tomb to be honest with you, get into an apartment.”

They talk about money and hygiene products. (“That’s a boy thing,” Amanda says, wheeling away and giving Randy some privacy.)

As they talk, Usborne books him a doctor’s appointment to get his heart medicine.

What about food, Usborne asks.

“I’ve got a taxi driver that brings me food. It costs me a lot,” Randy says.

Usborne says he’ll contact a food bank and see if they can work something out.

Kevin doesn’t say much until it’s time to talk about getting sober.

“I grieved the same way you were grieving when my wife died,” Kevin tells him. He mimes drinking and Randy nods.

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Randy says. “You almost don’t want to even think about it. . . . Knock it out, pass out, boom.”

You don’t really start to grieve until you have a sober mind, Kevin tells him. Through the conversation, Kevin uses one phrase over and over: “when you’re ready.”

They talk about the physical stress of detox and about being survivors. They talk about what happens when you’re ready to quit.

“I’m getting very close,” Randy says.

Kevin tells him that he started at a recovery house as a client. Now he’s managing the house.

Randy thanks them for the hand warmers and clothes. “I need a drink right now, to be honest,” he says.

Amanda asks if there’s anything else he needs and Randy asks for some ravioli.

“Jesus, you guys are amazing,” Randy says.

Amanda tells him she’ll be back in a couple days.

“As much as you say, ‘Leave me alone in here,’ I’m just not going to do it.”

11 years

Rapid transit, rising home prices and lack of supportive housing have exacerbated the homelessness problem, explains Polly Krier, coordinator for the Tri-Cities Homelessness and Housing Task Group.

“We used to be kind of the sleepy suburbs but now we’re urban,” she says. “Everything about homelessness is different now than it was in 2010. . . . It’s definitely worse.”

The overdose crisis is not strictly a homelessness problem but it does have a disproportionate impact on the homeless population.

“Some people are not addicted to anything until they get to the street,” she says.

In her 10-hour-a-week role, Krier coordinates with service providers, politicians, police and B.C. Housing.

“You often find communities trying to make our homeless population comfortable on the street. That’s really something that we don’t want to do. We want to get them off the street.”

It’s a challenge, she says, noting there have been no substantive improvements since the 3030 Gordon Avenue project in 2015. And while Maple Ridge has eight outreach workers, the Tri-Cities has two, Krier adds.

One idea that keeps getting suggested is the 244 acres at səmiq̓ʷəʔelə (formerly known as Riverview). The land is isolated, not fit for people with disabilities and not served by transit – in short, a non-starter, according to Krier.

There’s also the issue of people who support housing for homeless people – just not in their neighbourhood.

“The people against something are very, very, very loud,” she says, noting the tendency of one group to dominate a discussion.

It’s only spring but Krier is already worried about the winter shelter and the emergency weather shelter.
“We are struggling with the location for both,” she says.

The trouble of locking down a location seems illustrative of a larger problem of entrenched, conflicting viewpoints.

“Everyone has a different idea of what needs to happen,” she says. “They’re all very good and valid ideas but nobody’s willing to budge. . . . Until we start getting together and having that conversation, nothing’s going to change.”

Amanda and Kevin use their stories of addiction and survival to help other people get into recovery. photo Jeremy Shepherd

Almost quitting time

After the meeting, Usborne, Amanda and Kevin confer.

They agree it went well but any optimism is tempered by experience.

“This is just one,” Amanda says. “The bag’s pretty heavy.”

They talk about housing. That tempers optimism a bit more.

“B.C. Housing can help you with housing,” Usborne says. “But it’s your long-term possible solution.”

“The key word is possible,” Amanda says.

There’s a definite need for “shovels in the dirt,” Usborne agrees. He smiles. “Well, you’ve got some ravioli to purchase.”

Later, after dropping off the ravioli, the mood in the Kia is calm. Maybe there’s a sense of having made a small difference. Amanda’s head whips up.

“Do you have the phone?” she asks.

Kevin shakes his head.

Amanda checks her many pockets and rifles through the accordion file.

“Is the ringer on?” Kevin asks.

He calls it.

The phone sounds.

Amanda picks it up and for just a moment she looks relieved.

“Oh shit,” she says. “We missed a few calls.”

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