A group of frontline workers and supporters camped overnight in front of Terrace city hall Thanksgiving night (Oct 10), calling for a designated outdoor camping space for homeless people in the community.
City staff suggested the city hall lawn as the site for an overnight tent city June 21, but the idea was shot down in subsequent council meetings, with no alternative location yet proposed as winter approaches.
Tarea Roberge, who had been planning the event since August, spent the day handing out food to the needy in partnership with a local church and began setting up camp.
“We started setting up just before 7 (p.m.), after we handed out 100 meals downtown. That went really well. We got to spend some time with our vulnerable people and we’re all slowly arriving now.
“I think it’s going to be a beautiful night.”
The encampment action also follows a city council meeting where residents of Terrace’s southside petitioned against a downtown homeless shelter being moved to the area by the Ksan Society, that operates shelters in Terrace.
Council cut its live stream of the meeting and called police on frontline worker Billy Morrison, of Nisga’a Valley Health, who raised his voice and spoke out of turn in support of the shelter after the petition was presented by southside resident Kyle de Medeiros. De Medeiros had used loaded terminology alleging rape and public sex acts by homeless people, arguing crime rates would go up, putting young women and children in danger.
During the public input portion near the end of the meeting southside resident Timothy Boyce likened homeless people in the neighbourhood to having a “bad bear problem” adding that “when you’ve got a bad bear problem they either get relocated or shot.”
In response to Boyce’s comments, campers wore shirts reading, “I am not a bear.”
Roberge said while the “bad bear problem” statement wasn’t the reason for her encampment, it reflects the city’s attitude toward vulnerable people in Terrace and highlights the need for an overnight shelter space.
“It’s just one of the most evil things I’ve ever heard… They’re not treated like humans,” Roberge said.
“People are going to set up somewhere no matter what. They need a place to lay their head at night. I think it just gives our vulnerable people more dignity to not be shoved around by some dude in a uniform every single day.
“The city is supposed to provide a space for people to be allowed to set up their camp so that they have as close to a home as they can get in our community and they keep pushing the meetings and not making any decisions.”
Jolene Wesley, executive director of Kermode Friendship Society, which works to support vulnerable people in Terrace, said she absolutely supports the city hall encampment advocacy.
“People of the community have been calling on the city to step up and be a part of the solution and consistently I have observed the city tell us as non-profits or social service organizations, ‘what are you going to do about it?’
“Well, city, when are you going to step on board with us and what are you going to do about it? How are you going to become a part of the solution?”
Wesley said people from all walks of life are becoming homeless because of rising rents attributed to an influx of well-paid industry workers driving up housing costs that even middle-class residents can’t afford.
“They’re nurses, they’re families. There are families… just this summer, living in travel trailers because they got renovicted. And they’ve got a couple of kids and a pet and they can’t find a home.”
Outgoing mayor Carol Leclerc and her council’s treatment of Morrison stood in contrast to when Boyce spoke about shooting homeless people, Wesley said, adding that nobody confronted Boyce for his “inappropriate” comments.
She said there are “opportunities for change” for the incoming city council to better represent the whole community.
Morrison said rather than complaining about the Ksan society’s homeless shelter, southside residents could be proactive and organize for the betterment of their neighbourhood, adding that the team at Nisga’a Valley Health have been doing just that.
“Right now we are offering our people emergency treatment, we’re getting them to detox and treatment as quickly as possible,” Morrison said.
“Within these past couple of months we’ve taken, I believe, between eight and 12 of our members off of these streets in Terrace and sent them off to addictions treatment.”
Southside residents could set up a neighbourhood watch, Morrison said, or they could go further and help support people on the street by supporting jobs programs, so that they don’t have to steal.
He said some crimes are being wrongly blamed on homeless people who make for easy scapegoats.
“The opposite of addiction is love and connection. And those words, I really live my life by,” Morrison said.
“If we can just start doing some things to show that… Right now working for Nisga’a Valley Health, we’re working very hard to assist the people from our nation on these streets right now.”
The night went by with little incident aside from some passers-by, observed by Terrace Standard staff, revving their engines menacingly, then speeding away, as they passed on Eby Street.
Others honked in support of the campers.
Roberge hopes people start to listen to what frontline workers and social service groups have been saying for years.
“I hope people start to care and I hope they open their hearts and understand what the problem is.”
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