Bruce Halverson said police and Township of Langley workers showed up to evict him and about half a dozen other people from a homeless camp in the woods near McLeod Athletic Park on Jan. 12; below: Township vehicles were called in to collect debris as the camp was dismantled.

‘Find a place somewhere, where we can stay’

No easy solutions, mayor acknowledges, as cleanup of homeless camps almost always ends with return of those who have been evicted

Bruce Halverson was walking a heavily-laden bicycle out of the woods next to McLeod Athletic Park in Langley Township on the morning of Jan. 12 when he met a Times reporter.

Halverson had just been evicted from his encampment in the trees by police and Township crews who told him to pack up his possessions and leave.

“They only gave me an hour to get all my stuff out,” he said.

Halverson said he had to leave his tent and a second bike behind.

“Basically, all my food, everything else is gone,” Halverson said.

By his estimate, the latest eviction marks the “fourth or fifth time” in two years that he’s been ordered to leave that location.

Each time, he said, he and the other people living in the woods have eventually moved back.

“Basically all they’re doing is shuffling (us),” Halverson said.

“Why don’t they just find a place somewhere where we can stay? Maybe charge us $100 a month.”

Farther into the woods, on the Arbour Ribbon Trail that winds through the trees behind the McLeod Park baseball diamond, two Township trucks and a backhoe could be seen cleaning out one of three illegal encampments.

Civic workers were using wheelbarrows to bring garbage out, piling everything from discarded paper cups and tarps to a baby carriage in backs of the trucks.

Bill Storie, Township Manager of Bylaws, said the single day of cleaning up cost $2,400.

“We have ongoing issues with encampments,” Storie told the Times.

“They just move and come back.”

The woods behind McLeod Park aren’t the only sites where the Township and the homeless are engaged in a continual process of closing homeless camps, followed by the return of the campers and more evictions.

Storie said there are a number of other known locations.

Some are on private property, which complicates enforcement because it is technically up to the owners to evict the squatters.

Township bylaw enforcement will act to clean up homeless encampments when they spot them or if complaints are received, Storie said.

“Unfortunately, it’s taking up more and more staff time.”

Late last year, the Supreme Court overturned an Abbotsford ban on homeless encampments, ruling that homeless people in that city have a right to sleep overnight in public spaces if there isn’t anywhere else for them to go.

They can temporarily erect shelters or tents, but they must take them down in the morning, BC Supreme Court Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled.

The ruling may have implications for Langley Township, which bans people from being in parks between dusk and dawn.

Township mayor Jack Froese said municipal staff are reviewing the Abbotsford case.

Unlike Abbotsford, Froese notes, the Langleys do offer a place for homeless people to go; the Gateway of Hope shelter operated by the Salvation Army on the Langley Bypass, which has room for up to 22 men and 10 women in its emergency shelter and operates several other programs to help the homeless.

“We’re kind of a standout from other municipalities (in that respect),” Froese said.

The mayor said homelessness is a “very complex situation”  that municipal authorities only have limited power to deal with.

“We’re dealing with mental health issues, we’re dealing with drug addiction,” Froese said.

“There’s no one simple magic bullet answer.”

Local authorities can and do offer to help homeless people, but if they refuse, they can’t be compelled to stop living in the woods, the mayor said.

“It’s not illegal to be homeless” Froese said.

As for Halverson’s suggestion the Township might create a place where the homeless can camp legally, Froese gave a neutral response, saying the idea would be passed on to the staff who are reviewing the Abbotsford case, but he wasn’t taking a position for or against.

— files from Abbotsford News

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