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Rob Shaw: In Abbotsford, the homeless encampment will come down, but is it too late?

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon recognizes it's only one step on a long road
Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon announced Tuesday that the homeless encampment in Abbotsford will be taken down June 26.

For years, a tiny patch of Abbotsford’s Lonzo Road has been an eyesore for residents, a nuisance for local businesses and a safety hazard for first responders. The homeless encampment by the highway is by far the city’s most dangerous site.

The provincial government finally moved to end it Tuesday. But it might be too little, too late. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon announced the province would evict the roughly 15 people in the encampment on June 26 to make way for the construction of a $4 million temporary shelter with 50 beds.

“What's been clear to us is that the situation cannot continue as it currently is,” said Kahlon.

“Encampments offer a sense of community for some people, but they're not safe or sustainable forms of long term shelter and create significant risks for people's well being. There are consistent health and fire and safety issues at the encampment every day that affect those that are sheltering and the surrounding community.”

There are burnt-out husks of vehicles still at Lonzo Road, as well as dilapidated RVs and trailers. Sewage is reportedly leaking into a nearby creek. Firefighters, often called to respond to an overdose, refuse to go alone without police accompanying them. There have been guns, knives, axes, bear spray and machetes found at the site.

The move begins a kind of musical chairs of homeless housing in the city that will play out for years.

The new shelter at Lonzo Road should be complete by the end of 2023, said Kahlon. Then, the province will close an existing temporary shelter on Riverside Road, and begin construction on a 61-unit permanent supportive housing building at nearby Cole Starnes Place. Finally, 18 months later, the new $4-million temporary Lonzo Road housing will be decommissioned as well.

That’s millions of dollars spent on Abbotsford’s homeless situation, but it’s not clear it will be enough. Kahlon sidestepped questions about whether the city’s homeless population is actually as many as 700 people — far more than the 480 affordable housing units the province is in the act of building for the region. All the money may still not address the issue.

“Homelessness is a very complex issue,” said Kahlon. He added: “It won't be something that Abbotsford solves alone. This will be something that we address as a region together.”

Abbotsford Mayor Ross Siemens called it an “important first step” and expressed gratitude at the province’s intervention.

It was, though, the least the provincial government could do.

After all, the encampment was on property owned by the Ministry of Transportation near a provincial highway. The city wasn’t able to enforce its own bylaws on the land, and the government never asked police to either.

Abbotsford had to spend more than $200,000 responding to the many nuisance calls, fires, overdoses and police incidents there, from a population that at times swelled to more than 100 people. There were thousands of police calls, spanning years, during which the province dithered.

Siemens and others have been sounding the alarm bell for some time. That made it a bit hard to swallow the congratulatory speech delivered Tuesday by Abbotsford-Mission MLA and Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis, who repeatedly talked about how fast the government responded.

“Our government has acted urgently to build new supportive housing and shelter spaces in Abbotsford to address this crisis,” she said. If only.

Abbotsford South BC United MLA Bruce Banman said the only reason the province is acting now is because the Opposition obtained a briefing note using Freedom of Information laws that showed Premier David Eby was briefed on the mess at Lonzo Road while housing minister in 2022 and failed to step up to solve the crisis.

“What does it take to get something done?” asked Banman. “It appears the premier has to end up with egg on his face and then try to get it off by actually doing something.”

There are believed to be another half dozen provincially-owned properties in Abbotsford upon which homeless people are camping in one form or another. This $4 million is unlikely to fully clear those either.

“We appreciate that there are people that are at rest stops, or other MOTI (Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure) sites, and we continue to have staff go reach out and try to identify how we can support those individuals,” said Kahlon.

“This is a big step for us here in Abbotsford today. But there's a lot more work to do. And fundamentally, we just need to get more housing built.”

Kahlon refused to speculate on what will happen if the remaining dozen or so Lonzo Road campers refuse to leave by the province’s deadline. In that scenario, the province would likely have to seek a court to get people removed. Judges increasingly demand the province show it has enough varied types of shelter spaces available to suit the needs of the unhoused before granting injunctions.

The NDP is sensitive to the issue in Abbotsford because it is a riding the party won for the first time from the BC Liberals in the 2020 election. Still, it allowed the issue to fester for far too long without action.

Mayor Siemens said what’s important now is that the province and city are together in moving towards more housing, and clearing the location. Ultimately, helping those with addictions and mental health problems who may be stuck at Lonzo Road is the top priority, he said.

“Everyone who is sheltering in this location is someone's son or daughter, parent or friend, which is sometimes lost and gets overlooked when they talk about these issues,” he said.

“These issues transcend politics, they transcend our ideology and our personal opinions. These are human souls that deserve dignity and respect.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]