About 20 people living in a makeshift camp under an overpass in Chilliwack were forced to leave Wednesday night when one of the tents caught fire, highlighting the increasingly precarious position of homeless people as the Lower Mainland hits freezing temperatures.
“I was sleeping. I woke up to my girlfriend passing me my shoes and to a propane tank exploding,” said a man who lived in the camp.
The fire was so intense it melted tarps onto tents, but everyone managed to escape unharmed.
WATCH: Footage of Chilliwack homeless camp as it goes up in flames
About half of those who had to flee the encampment have gone to local homeless shelters, while a few others are said to have gone to motels or hotels, Bill Raddatz, executive director of the shelter Ruth and Naomi’s Mission, told Global News.
“The rest just went back to the street somewhere,” he said.
Some of the people living in the camps told Global News they are choosing to stay outside for now because the shelters often separate couples.
Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz said she is dismayed that some homeless people continue to sleep on the streets even though the city’s homeless shelters have promised to turn no one away.
Even so, she said she is committed to working with the province to find a long-term solution to keep those without a home safe.
“My heart goes out to these people. If the wind direction had been different, had it been later in the evening, we could have had an enormous tragedy,” Gaetz said.
The lives of homeless people across the Lower Mainland are at risk because of the freezing weather, says one mission spokesman.
“When you get hit with weather like this, it’s a whole new ball game,” said Jeremy Hunka of the Union Gospel Mission. “We know that people who are on the streets are already vulnerable and in many cases their immune systems are already diminished … It can really quickly turn into a serious illness or a health emergency.”
While there are urgent short-term needs, Margot Young, a law professor and housing rights expert at the University of British Columbia, said it is important to examine why people choose tent cities instead of shelters. These include accessibility issues for couples or pets, as well as the fact that some feel safer outside of shelters because they are worried about violence or having their belongings stolen. Others find a sense of a community in the camps.
“The visible tip of the housing insecurity situation will be the homeless and will be the homeless who congregate in tent cities,” she said. “I think we need to listen carefully to the issues that compel them to build the tent cities.”