Maple Ridge Community Safety Officers push unhoused couple into path of Covid-19 outbreak

Tina and Steve were evicted from an apartment building by a Maple Ridge slumlord named Trevor Davies on January 31st. With nowhere else to go, they went back to the same wooded empty lot where they lived for two years before they got housed.

Tina explains, “We were here from July 1st 2017 until February 1st 2019. We didn’t cause any problems, we didn’t bring a lot of people in here. Honestly, most people didn’t know we were here. They left us alone.”

The last time Tina and Steve were staying on the city-owned property, Anita Place Tent City was underway. I met them then because they came by and socialized with people living at the tent city, where I was involved as an organizer. The Maple Ridge bylaw office had been shut out from the tent city by the organized efforts of campers and, to avoid adding numbers to the camp, the police were hesitant to displace unhoused people out of other places in town if they were out of the way.

Tina and Steve sit outside their tent before being evicted by Maple Ridge bylaw, CSO, and RCMP officers (VOLCANO)

This time around, Tina and Steve had been camped in the wooded lot for a couple weeks and, Steve explained, they had not had any interactions with neighbours. “The only conflict we have had was when I yelled at two kids who were trying to break into a car,” he said.

Tina and Steve were treated differently now than when they were camped in the lot before, not because of anything they did, but because the City of Maple Ridge is now in the midst of a super policing crackdown against low-income people in public space.

Since finally displacing the tent city in August 2019, Mayor Morden has been carrying out a vengeful campaign of harassment, disorganization, and displacement targeting low-income communities in public. Maple Ridge has passed an anti-panhandling ordinance, tightened anti-tenting laws, declared a large section of the river waterfront as a no-trespassing area, and created a “Community Safety Officer” team tasked with patrolling the streets and harassing low income people.

The Community Safety Officer team is the most significant of these initiatives, making an important contribution to the legal arsenal of municipal law enforcement. In 2019 Maple Ridge City Council approved $350,000 for the development, “further actions,” and consulting and research of the Community Safety Officer team. While CSO officers are not real cops, they have the RCMP and other bylaw officers at their beck and call.

Camped back out in their old wooded area home, Tina and Steve quickly faced the harassment of Community Safety Officers, who ordered them to leave the isolated place for a congregate shelter.

“This morning one CSO officer, named Casey, showed up at 9am. He said beat it, you’ve gotta go. You can’t be here,” Tina explained. “Then he left and came back at 2pm with more officers. They told us they want us to take down right away and go to the shelter.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the Salvation Army shelter in Maple Ridge had been operating at half capacity to meet pandemic physical distancing, but the officer told Tina that the shelter was increasing capacity because of the cold and wet weather – reducing the physical distancing capacity of the shelter.

By the time the CSO officers came back for the third time that day, around 3:30pm, I happened to also be pulling up. I had been talking with Tina and Steve about their eviction, which I think was illegal, and they gave me directions to their camp and said to stop by anytime. I parked on the winding suburban street where a thin line of flagging tape was hanging from a tree on an unkempt wooded lot. The CSO truck pulled up as I crossed the street, so I walked into the bush up a muddy trail just ahead of the two of them. I snapped a photo of them and we had a terse exchange.

Tina and Steve’s tent was set up deep in the woods, far enough from the road that you couldn’t hear the traffic. It was not a well used trail or a formal park, and there was no one around.

Over the next couple hours I sat with Tina and Steve. Most of the time four Community Safety Officers, four bylaw officers, and four RCMP officers stood around their trucks back on the road. But occasionally the cops trekked in to demand that they leave, or to smile and say they have Tina and Steve’s best interest at heart. I heard the CSO officer say that he had left messages with the office of the MLA for some reason, and with a housing provider. But these calls went nowhere and the smiling, clean cut CSO officer didn’t offer any option other than leaving their campsite for a congregate shelter.

A small murder of cops gathered on the street to plot the eviction of a solitary camp site from a vast, unused city owned property (VOLCANO)

When Steve got back to the camp, we found out that a serious Covid-19 outbreak had begun at the supportive housing building up the road from the shelter where the cops were trying to force Tina and Steve to go. Steve had been to the shelter to see if there were beds available for the two of them and a public health van was there, and people in hazmat suits had shut down access to the shelter so no one could get close.

Steve said the people in hazmat suits were looking for someone who lives at the supportive housing building who was missing, and who they believed had been exposed to Covid-19. It seemed absurd that Community Safety Officers would be forcing Tina and Steve to leave the sanctuary they made to go to a shelter that will likely soon face a Covid-19 outbreak.

“I feel safer here at our camp,” Tina said. “I have asthma and a broken rib. Going to a shelter with so many people is not safe. I feel safer here.” Before being evicted, Tina had a severe staph infection from a spider bite and it got so bad she had to take powerful antibiotics to heal it. That happened while she was being evicted, and she wasn’t eating well, so the antibiotics made her sick and she vomited so much that she broke a rib.

Tina has also struggled through this period to stop using drugs. “I also don’t want to be around drug users right now. I’ve fought too hard to get away from drug use. And there’s nowhere for me to go. There is no option,” she said. So even without the problem of the Covid-19 outbreak, she felt safer at the space she had created.

The officer who delivered the threats was a tall, middle aged, clean cut man wearing a white collar shirt under his Maple Ridge nylon jacket. He did not look like a regular officer. Chad Cowles identified himself as Manager of the Community Social Safety Initiative. He handed Tina and Steve the two copies that he carried of a freshly written and printed order, which said (in three different places) that they had “one hour” to leave the property, which they were “trespassing.” Chad had none of that sternness. He affected empathetic body language, leaning slightly towards them with his arms at his side and slightly forwards, his hands open and palms showing. And he said repeatedly that he wanted to “help.”

Chad said, “The shelter is fine right now. Right now it’s safe and they have an extension space where people can stay over and stay safely. They’ve put a lot of effort into making it safe.”

I asked him about the danger of the outbreak at the supportive housing building up the street and he refused to answer. Instead he said, “You’re making the right decision by going to the shelter.”  

He stuttered a bit when he then said, “I do have to show you this notice saying that staying on this property is trespassing.” It was as though he was pretending that he, as the Manager of Community Social Safety Initiative, had no role in the eviction.

Tina had already given up on the possibility of staying at her camp and started negotiating for a delay in the eviction. Eventually, Chad agreed and promised to have a bylaw truck help move their belongings in the morning.

I asked Chad who would be responsible for the decision to displace Tina and Steve from the sanctuary they created into the danger of a Covid-19 outbreak, should either of them get sick. He got angry at that point and said, “I can’t predict the future. I can’t guarantee anything.”

After the cops left, I drove Tina and Steve to the shelter for dinner.

Tina and Steve told me they had never been homeless before the “housing boom.” They had lived in a rancher with their three sons until the landlord evicted them, he said with the intention of selling. Steve said, “The landlord was decent, he gave us 6 months notice and fair compensation.” But it came with a heavy price for the two of them because they have not had stable housing since, and because of that they lost custody of their kids.

Maple Ridge portrays its Community Safety Officer program as a support and outreach program that connects unhoused people to services. The Executive Director of Alouette Addictions, one of those service organizations, told an advocate: “When CSOs find someone camped outside, they bring them food and burner phones.” Tina and Steve said the Community Safety Officers that evicted them from their camp never offered them any food or cell phones.

Community Safety Officers did not help Tina or Steve deal with the housing crisis that makes them homeless. Instead, Maple Ridge’s system of poverty cops displaced the two of them into an acute danger of getting infected with a deadly disease.

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