Nfld. & Labrador

Homeless people camping in woods near Happy Valley-Goose Bay

A town with scarce housing and high rents has people camping out in the woods. The director of the local friendship centre says people are struggling.

RCMP say about 27 camps around town: 'No easy answer,' says mayor

One of the many encampments littered with trash off a trail in the middle of Happy Valley-Goose Bay (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay is looking for ways to cope with a growing number of transient camps on its back trails. 

"We've noticed it escalate over the last two summers, and this summer in particular it's escalating yet again," Mayor Jamie Snook said.

"A lot of the individuals have addictions issues. There's homelessness at play at times. There's mental health. There's no easy answer."

A case of beer and a chair are signs of one camp, not too far off Hamilton River Road, Happy Valley-Goose Bay's main drag. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

In a recent update to the town, Snook said RCMP identified about 27 camps around town. Many are strewn with litter and empty beer cases.

I don't see garbage. I see a person that's struggling that needs help.- Jennifer Hefler-Elson

Police are fielding about five calls a day about someone drunk in public, so many it's a full-time job for one officer.

"The RCMP detachment is extremely busy and doing their best. The court system is, I think, the second-busiest court in the province here, so, really, we've got to figure out how to get to the root of the problem," Snook said.

A number of complaints have been posted to social media, ranging from fires being lit near houses to encountering intoxicated people late at night. The town and organizations that are on the front lines of the problem are calling for patience.

A growing problem

"When I see [the encampments], I don't see garbage. I see a person that's struggling that needs help," said Jennifer Hefler-Elson, executive director of the friendship centre. 

"They're not there because they want to be there. It's something that happened in their lives that affected their lives so hard that their lives are mental health and addictions. It's not something that they always have control over."

She said the problem is more noticeable to the public in the summer months but it's happening year-round and the growing town will have to figure out how to deal with it.

Jennifer Hefler-Elson is the executive director of the Labrador Friendship Centre. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"The rents have skyrocketed over the past few years. There's not a lot available for people on lower incomes," she said

"I think even on middle incomes there's a lot of people that are just making it from paycheque to paycheque because the rents are so high — not just the rent, the cost of living."

An access point

The town does have a homeless shelter that can accommodate a dozen people, but not everyone uses it.

"There are some people that I see on the streets and in the wooded areas and in some of the encampments that don't come to the shelter at all," said Brian Davis, housing support worker at the shelter. 

Brian Davis is the housing support worker at Happy Valley-Goose Bay's homeless shelter. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Davis estimated about 50 to 60 per cent of Happy Valley-Goose Bay's homeless do use the shelter, which opened earlier this year.

"It's an access point," Davis said. "It is a means for them to connect with us, the support workers … case workers that are very familiar with all the social services that are available, housing services."

Davis says he doesn't believe homelessness can ever be done away with but it can be mitigated. 

"We've done a lot of work in the last couple of years. There's a lot that can still be done," he said, calling on people to come together to formulate a strategy.

"How do we ensure the safety of the people that are living outside?"

With files from Katie Breen