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Homeless in Grand Forks call for housing ‘so we don’t freeze to death’

Click to play video: 'People experiencing homelessness in Grand Forks call for housing “so we don’t freeze to death”' People experiencing homelessness in Grand Forks call for housing “so we don’t freeze to death”
People experiencing homelessness in Grand Forks call for housing “so we don’t freeze to death” – Dec 18, 2019

This is the last installment of a four-part series called Grand Forks: Cost of Disaster. 

Matthew Atchison, 34, huddled around a wood-burning stove in a fifth wheel trailer at an unsanctioned homeless encampment in Grand Forks, B.C., trying to keep warm, when he spoke with Global News.

“It’s very challenging. It’s much colder up here than it is down in the town, it’s up in the mountains pretty much,” he said. “It’s a struggle, day to day.”

Atchison said he returned to his hometown of Grand Forks after living on the streets in Vernon, but his family’s rental home was lost to the 1-in-200 year flood event in spring 2018.

“My family lost everything. All of our belongings, our house that we were renting, all the vehicles, clothing, everything,” he said.

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READ MORE: Flood recovery, not supportive housing, should be council focus: Grand Forks citizen’s group

Atchison and at least 10 other people are living in trailers at the encampment without service connections. Therefore, they do not have access to power, heat or sewer in sub-zero temperatures.

One man, who asked not to be identified, said even a campfire can’t counteract the deep freeze.

A man, who asked not to be identified, is living in this trailer and relying on a campfire to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures. Shelby Thom\Global News

“It got down to like minus-10 C here a couple nights ago, it was so cold,” he said.

There is no place in Grand Forks for the homeless to warm up. The city is without an emergency winter shelter or a supportive housing facility.

Click to play video: 'Grand Forks residents rally, say they remain in limbo over post-flood buyout plan' Grand Forks residents rally, say they remain in limbo over post-flood buyout plan
Grand Forks residents rally, say they remain in limbo over post-flood buyout plan – Nov 15, 2019

“Part of Grand Forks just doesn’t want the homeless here, they are right against it,” said Mona Rosengren, whose husband lives at the camp. She is staying with a friend while recovering from a car accident, but fears she will end up at the site alongside her partner once she’s recuperated.

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“I have to leave there, and I’m not going to have anywhere to go. I’m going to be homeless like everybody up here,” she said. “It’s scary, I don’t know what to do. There’s not enough housing.

“It’s really hard battling with city council. It’s really hard getting help.”

READ MORE: Grand Forks residents protest no-barrier housing proposal, council votes against 70th Ave. location

Two proposed locations for a low-barrier housing development have been shot down by Grand Forks city council because of neighbourhood opposition.

Adding another layer of complexity to the housing debate is that many residents who had homes in the city were also displaced because of the floods 19 months ago.

A protest was held outside city hall in June as residents rallied against the proposed re-location of the supportive housing project to four city-owned lots on 70th Avenue.

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Protesters voice concern over proposed supportive housing complex in Grand Forks – Jun 11, 2019

“We have suffered a tremendous amount of devastation in this community from the flood and it’s completely unfair to unload this onto our community which is struggling so hard to survive,” protester Glynis Andersson said on June 10.

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Atchison wishes the community was more supportive of the homeless.

“It’s ridiculous. The community should be able to work together and put their issues behind them on discrimination, and think about the well-being of others and how important it is for people to be safe and warm at night,” he said.

READ MORE: Grand Forks commercial flood insurance battle prompts calls for greater oversight of insurance industry

BC Housing is opening a 52-unit affordable rental building for flood-affected residents, but 35 people are already on the wait list for a one-bedroom unit, according to the Crown agency.

There are still vacancies for the two and three-bedroom suites.

Other flood-affected renters, like Ingrid Mathison, are at-risk of homelessness.

Ingrid Mathison, 59, said her landlord raised the rent by $250 a month in the wake of the May 2018 floods. Shelby Thom\Global News

The 59-year-old, who lives with her 76-year-old husband Gary McLean, said their landlord increased the rent by $250 per month in the wake of the floods.

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Their rental home, on an agricultural property, sustained damage requiring the owner to pay for some of the repairs out-of-pocket.

“In some ways, I’m mad about it, but in other ways I’m not,” Mathison told Global News. “We’re making ends meet. It’s a little difficult at times, but it’s not too big of a thing.

“You don’t pay one bill and you pay another bill, you pay your rent or you pay your food,” she said.

The couple, on a fixed income, own six horses and three large dogs.

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Grand Forks flood victim faces possible bankruptcy – Jul 1, 2019

“In Grand Forks, it’s very hard to find a rental as it is, so to find a rental that will also be a farm would be very difficult,” she said.

Grand Forks city councillor Christine Thompson said in the absence of a homelessness count, it’s unclear how many people are in need.

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“You can’t proceed if you don’t have the numbers, because you don’t know what is required,” she said.

However, homeless advocate Lorraine Dick, who is a member of the group Humanitarian Action, said BC Housing should push forward with opening a supportive housing facility at the provincially owned 2nd Street property, with or without city council support.

READ MORE: Grand Forks flood buyout woes highlight gaps in B.C. emergency management policies

“I would certainly love to see BC Housing come in and build the building. It’s an empty lot, its ugly and putting a nice building there would certainly spiff up that corner of town, but we need it,” she said.

“I think it’s time to take it to the next level of government.”

BC Housing’s interior regional director, Ann Howard, said the province still plans to open the low-barrier housing development in Grand Forks, but a timeline is unknown.

“BC Housing is committed to developing supportive housing in Grand Forks and the City of Grand Forks has asked BC Housing to defer conversations until this fall and we’ve, since then, re-initiated discussions. And so we are having those conversations right now,” she told Global News.

“We prefer to work with the councils of our municipalities and have their support in anything we do, and that’s our chosen approach right now,” Howard said.

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Nearly $50 million in funding announced for Grand Forks recovery – Jun 26, 2019

Meanwhile, the situation at the homeless encampment is becoming more dire by the day.

“A 24-hour emergency shelter, anything, so we have somewhere to lay our heads at night, so we don’t freeze to death,” Atchison said.

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