British Columbia

'A lot of them have been sleeping in garbage bins': new homeless camp shows negative side of economic growth

A small homeless camp has been erected outside Prince Rupert's city hall, prompting Mayor Lee Brain to call on the province to improve affordability in northwest B.C.

Mayor of Prince Rupert stepped in to help set up tents and is calling on the province to take action

Cliff Russ is among a small group of homeless residents who've moved into a camp outside Prince Rupert city hall. (George Baker/CBC)

A new homeless camp set up beside Prince Rupert city hall is a reminder of the negative impacts of industrial growth, according to the mayor of the North Coast city.

The camp was set up by Goot Goot Ges (Patricia McEvoy) using donated tents and supplies in an effort to help as colder winter weather and storms set in.

"We get a lot of rain and wind here," she explained.

"A lot of them [the homeless] have been sleeping in garbage bins ... anywhere they can find that's dry, a little bit of shelter, and I think our community can do a lot better than that."

Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain assists organizer Goot Ges in setting up a tent for homeless residents. (George Baker/CBC)

Goot Ges said she was motivated by her time working on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, as well as an awareness of her own situation as a single mother.

"What if it was me and my kids sleeping outside on the streets? Would anybody care?" she asked.

"We need to start caring about each other again."

Tenants renovicted to make way for LNG

As Goot Ges set up the camp Wednesday, she was joined by Mayor Lee Brain who later released a letter he'd written to the province's minister of municipal affairs and housing, Selina Robinson.

In it, he asked the province to work with the city to build a homeless shelter and add new affordable housing to help residents priced out by economic growth in the city.

"During the speculative period surrounding the LNG industry in Prince Rupert from 2012-2017, the City saw increased pressures in our rental housing market," he wrote.

"Many tenants were renovicted, while homeowners sought to sell their homes, as property values increased. Due to the continued growth at the Port [of Prince Rupert] and adjacent industries, the trend has not slowed. Unfortunately, the economic benefit of port growth has not spread to underprivileged families in Prince Rupert, and many are considered precariously housed."

Brain also outlined several actions the city has taken, including offering municipal land for housing developments or a shelter.

He said he will not be moving to take down the camp.

'It makes you feel like you fit in'

In the days since Goot Ges started the camp, several people have moved in as other Rupertites donate more tents, food and supplies.

Among those living in the camp is Cliff Russ, who said he's feeling supported by his community.

"It makes me feel good. It makes you feel like you fit in with everyone," he said, adding that he'd prefer a more permanent shelter.

Under a dozen tents have been set up in the first week of a homeless camp outside Prince Rupert city hall. (George Baker/CBC)

"Hopefully it's not too long. Hopefully they find us a place." 

Matt Thomson of Urban Matters Vancouver said the situation is a reminder of the unique challenge Goot Ges faced by the homeless in smaller, rural communities, from lower temperatures to fewer supports.

"There's a high level of mobility between communities. A lot of shelters may have a stay limit of 30 days or 60 days ... and often there's a lot of transience between a community like Terrace and a community like Prince Rupert," he said.

Thomson also said that transience could mask the levels of homelessness because residents may not see the same people sleeping on the streets every day.

"The less visible something is, typically the less political response we see to it and the less support we see for resources and services to address the issue," Thomson said.

Goot Ges said she hoped the camp would draw attention to the issues facing Prince Rupert but added that with winter coming it also serves a more urgent need: survival.

"I don't want to see anyone dying out here," she said.

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.