March 11, 2018

Twice a week, Jemal Demtawe and his co-worker Demetrius Schwab drive around Metro Vancouver searching for people who live on the streets and in makeshift camps.

They're part of the Union Gospel Mission’s rescue van that brings food and warm beverages to homeless people in the region.

Often, their drive takes them outside the city, to areas off the grid where homeless people have set up makeshift camps.

“Most of them are very happy to see us, because no one comes to visit them,” said Demtawe.

But on Wednesday, their van rolled up to a homeless camp they had previously visited just off North Road in Burnaby.

It had been flattened, the residents evicted and dispersed.

The residents had been camping on land owned by Burlington North Santa Fe Railway, and were evicted last week.

“It’s sort of a setback in our relationship,” said Schwab. “We don’t have much opportunities to know where they’ve gone.”

Advocates say evictions like this pose a troubling problem for homeless people and authorities alike. They say the evictions put homeless people in danger, pushing them farther away from services they need.

But landowners say the camps pose grave fire and safety threats. Many go to court to seek injunctions to disperse the squatters.

DJ Larkin with Pivot Legal Society says landowners have a legal right to evict the campers, but she says displacing them pushes vulnerable people to the periphery.

“It causes serious psychological harm, as well as physical harm, it stops people from accessing services,” she said.

It’s estimated there are 70 homeless camps in Metro Vancouver. And homeless rates are on the rise across the region.

In the Fraser Valley, the number of homeless people rose 76 per cent from 2014 to 2017. And in Metro Vancouver, the last homeless count tallied 3,605 people, up 30 per cent from 2014.

Demtawe and Schwab climb into their van and head to their second spot of the day, further east in Surrey, B.C.  

They park underneath the Port Mann bridge and walk through a swampy field until they reach the site, another field with several R.V’s, a wooden cabin and debris scattered around.

“Hey, anybody home?” shouts Demtawe.

Residents appear and engage in friendly conversation with the outreach workers, who hand out hot chocolate and sandwiches.

A homeless man, Richard Dey, tells the outreach workers that residents have also received an eviction notice.

“You know we’re all outta here in about a week, right?” says Dey.

The Vancouver Port Authority manages the land and obtained an injunction on March 8 to evict the campers.

Roger Newton who spent a year building a cabin here, must now leave.

Newton said he can’t go to a shelter because he suffers from social anxiety.

“You can’t live like this, that way. So you either have to rejoin society and hope you can fit in some way, and we’re here because we don’t,” he said.

So where will he go?

“Who knows,” he replied.

Demtawe worries whether if he will see his new found friends again.

“I’m thinking about where they’re going to go, where am I going to see them next,” said  Demtawe.

“I’m worried about whether they will find shelter.”