By Dave Diewert
There’s a grassy area and a forested ravine just next to the Cliff Ave cul-de-sac in Maple Ridge that has been the site of homeless camps for over a decade. It’s mostly out of sight but close to the Salvation Army’s Caring Place, which offers daily meals, a few shelter beds (16 men, 8 women) and other resources. This area is popularly known as the “Back 40” – because there were 40 or so homeless folks residing there.
In November 2014, the city of Maple Ridge decided to end camping in the Back 40, apparently due to plans for developing the land. They built a sturdy chain-link fence along Cliff Ave to block people from locating there, so the street population just set up their homes along the fence on Cliff Ave.
The leadership in the camp has formed around three Indigenous women: Tracy, Marcy and Linda (Momma Bear). They are wonderful folks, with lots of experience of living on the streets, a strong sense of protecting the camp and a commitment to fight for the interests of the campers in any conversations with the City. When the Mayor and media showed up in May, Tracy wrote a poem as the camp statement; she read it out to the media but none of it was included in the news articles. She felt their voice was silenced and their perspectives not taken seriously.
Many of the neighbours living along Cliff Ave and one business located at the end of the cul-de-sac have been very unhappy with the camp at the end of the street. They want it gone, and over the past months tensions have continued to increase. In addition, the campers talk of vigilante violence where some people from the broader community hurl objects and dehumanizing slurs at them along with threats of violence.
The City of Maple Ridge has been fumbling around with what to do. The new mayor has struck a Homelessness Task Force, but to date it has done very little to support the camp, listen to their wishes or resolve the tensions with the neighbours.
In an effort to support the Cliff Ave street population, the Social Housing Alliance, in collaboration with the camp and its allies, proposed a community BBQ to support the camp and affirm the dignity and human worth of the campers. As the word got out that a BBQ was going to take place, hate-speech and threats of hostility against the camp began to escalate on social media. Even the Mayor called for the BBQ to be cancelled in an effort to avoid impending acts of violence on Cliff Ave.
The campers decided to cancel the BBQ, but still bikers showed up threatening the camp and police were called in to protect the campers. A few people walked through the camp saying they would burn down the tents that night. Under this hostile atmosphere of physical violence, some of the camp moved to another site. The City of Maple Ridge has not provided another location that could offer more safety and security while longer-term solutions could be formulated, so some of the campers have decided to set up on city-owned property elsewhere. Unfortunately, at each location they have been met by police and City officials pushing them out and forcing them from site to site, and ultimately back to Cliff Ave.
It’s not clear how this particular housing crisis will unfold, but what is clear is that this is only one recent manifestation of a political system that produces the violence of poverty and displacement with no solutions at hand. Low-income students (families and individuals) are being pushed out of on-campus affordable housing at SFU, Metrotown residents are being thrown out of their apartments in order to make way for massive condo towers, homeless people have camped out on the front lawn of City Hall in Campbell River demanding solutions, tenants of a residential motel in North Delta are facing immediate eviction due to derelict building conditions, and trailer park residents in Surrey are organizing against evictions as a result of re-development schemes by new corporate landlords.
It’s crucial that we connect these struggles of displacement and join together in pushing back against the dehumanizing forces that continue to push people out of their homes and communities.