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‘Nowhere to go’: Fraser River’s rising water puts unhoused people in harm’s way

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s vulnerable population already impacted by rising water levels'
B.C.’s vulnerable population already impacted by rising water levels
While Lower Mainland residents brace for the worst of the delayed spring freshet to arrive on the lower Fraser River, Maple Ridge homeless advocates say some of the most vulnerable are already being flooded out by rising water levels. Paul Johnson reports. – Jun 19, 2022

It wasn’t much, but it was shelter.

Andrew Padvaiskas had built a small log cabin on the east side of a wharf off the Lower Fraser River only to find it flooded this week by the river’s rising water levels.

In the past 48 hours, floodwaters swallowed his bed, leaving him with no other option than to salvage what he could and leave.

“It’s just going to get higher. I’m struggling because I’ve got nowhere to go. It’s quite rough out there,” the Maple Ridge resident told Global News, overlooking the river bank.

Read more: Heavy rain in parts of B.C. a concern for flood prone areas: River Forecast Centre

The River Forecast Centre has put the Lower Fraser River under a high streamflow advisory, as continued snowmelt and wet weather across the B.C. Interior add to its main stem and tributaries.

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The flows are forecast to rise over the next few days, and with “significant mountain snowpack” affecting the Fraser River, remain elevated for up to two weeks.

Padvaiskas said he knew the risks before he built the cabin there — someone warned him — but the banks of the Lower Fraser River felt like “home.” It was one of few places he could exist peacefully, without being chased out of public space, he explained.

“They always run us away from places,” he explained. “I just try to keep to myself, keep the place tidy, and make sure there’s no needles around so kids can’t pick them up.”

Click to play video: 'Kelowna woman feared swept into Mission Creek'
Kelowna woman feared swept into Mission Creek

Tracy Scott, president and co-founder of the Maple Ridge Street Outreach Society, said Padvaiskas isn’t alone. Many experiencing homelessness in the area prefer to live by the river, believing it to be “safer.”

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“There’s a lot of divide and a lot of hate in the town, I guess,” she explained. “No matter where they go uptown, they are stigmatized and lots of times, picked on by what we call vigilantes, or sometimes bylaw, sometimes the police — it depends.”

Once they’re kicked out of a park or off of a bench or sidewalk, Scott said, the homeless have few places to go. The outreach society has been unable to obtain its own building or shelter space.

She estimates about 50 people live by the riverbank, but with spring flooding, many are now “wandering around at night because there’s nowhere for them to go.”

Read more: Floods to persist in BC with unstable weather forecasts, experts say

Maple Ridge Mayor Mike Morden said Monday there are only two people living on the land east of the wharf by the Lower Fraser River, calling Scott’s estimate “completely false.” The city’s community safety officers are doing what they can to assist the two they have verified, he added.

“There’s a crisis on and we need treatment and we need housing for people that have straight-up challenges with lower incomes, seniors, those that are disabled,” he told Global News.

“Our concern here is that we want to be in the business of helping people and we’re doing our part, and we’re just frustrated with the progress, given the provincial commitments.”

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Click to play video: 'Whistler Search and Rescue volunteer found deceased'
Whistler Search and Rescue volunteer found deceased

According to Morden, the city has not seen some $200 million-worth in provincial housing investments — in exchange for the municipality taking an active role in the relocation of the Royal Crescent temporary supportive housing complex.

The mayor said he didn’t agree with that provincial solution, but accepted the investments. The modular complex now is under independent review, triggered by community concerns about its operation.

“(Royal Crescent is) woefully lacking on proper resources with that particular operator and that model. We still remain resolved to get that corrected,” he explained.

“That’s not working out well for those that live at Royal Crescent now, it’s not going to improve when they move that same model and operator to a new location.”

Maple Ridge is also awaiting treatment beds from the provincial government, he added, and with the provincial government, has recently opened up 20 new youth beds in subsidized housing.

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Read more: Front-line workers struggle to access affordable parking at Maple Ridge, B.C. hospital

In a written statement, the B.C. Ministry of Attorney General, which is also responsible for housing, said once the Royal Crescent residents move into a new building on Fraser Street, BC Housing plans to move forward with a new rental housing development for seniors on Royal Crescent.

“We are still finalizing our development plan for the seniors housing project and will share more details soon,” the department wrote.

The ministry has also engaged with Morden on discussions regarding “abstinence-based housing” for people experiencing homelessness, as well as additional supportive housing and a permanent shelter.

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Sustainable mass timber housing project opening in Coquitlam

Meanwhile, water levels have risen to an unusually high level in the Fraser River, said Scott, catching those who do live by the bank off-guard. Metres from the river, the land is still wet and muddy, meaning tents must be moved closer to town than many are comfortable with.

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“They come up to my friend’s house, they come up to my building even, trying to get (people) to dry their blankets for them and dry their clothes for them. They’re soaking wet. They’re freezing,” she said.

Scott lived on the streets for three years and said she knows how quickly hypothermia can set in. The unhoused are in real physical danger, including the risk of drowning, and there aren’t enough shelter beds in Maple Ridge to accommodate all of them, she added.

Morden pointed to the Salvation Army shelter as an option and acknowledged the needs — particularly among seniors and residents with disabilities or low-income. He lamented that much-needed investments are “not happening soon enough.”

Scott said she hoped sharing her story, and Padvaiskas’ story, prompted decision-makers to “show a little compassion.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Global News first published the article without reaching out to the City of Maple Ridge for comment. This article has now been updated with comments from the mayor. Global News regrets the error.

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