Maple Pool Campsite muddying Comox Valley homeless waters

Dear editor,

The Maple Pool controversy is muddying the waters around how to resolve the problem of homelessness in the Comox Valley.

Dear editor,

The Maple Pool controversy is muddying the waters around how to best to resolve the problem of homelessness in the Comox Valley.

Between the secrecy of the present process of ‘in camera’ meetings, the deliberate conflating of this issue with the emergency homeless shelter downtown, and the genuine compassion of people for a solution, any solution, we have a real mess here.

On the one hand, we have well-meaning people who wonder if Maple Pool might be a solution to homelessness and, on the other hand, we have people who want it to be the solution so they don’t have to do anything else for those who are homeless.

Clearly there are two facts.

First, having approximately 50 people, the vast majority of them men, camping out year round, is not a desirable or permanent answer, even if it is a step up from sleeping in an abandoned house or under a bridge.

Secondly, the City has a responsibility to the people living at Maple Pool to either resolve the differences with the owners or to find alternative accommodation for those residents.

We should step back a little and examine the history. Back in August 2010, the City gave notice to Maple Pool Campsite owners Jin and Dali Lin that they were in violation of zoning bylaw 2500-2007 in that the area is not zoned for permanent residences.  The stated reason was that the campground is on the Tsolum River floodplain and was twice flooded, in Nov. 2009 and in Jan. 2010.

With the likelihood that the weather is only going to become more extreme with more heavy rainstorms, it is reasonable to expect that flooding will become an even more common occurrence.

On Oct. 19, 2010, the City gave the Lins three months to comply with the bylaw, which would have meant essentially evicting approximately 56 people who were living there, many on disability pensions or on social assistance.

The City, after intervention from the Ad Hoc Emergency Resources Organization (AHERO), a loose coalition of frontline social services, non-profit groups and faith communities, and at the request of the Lins, extended the deadline for six months until July 2011.

It is important to remember what AHERO’s position was at this time. They stated that while Maple Pool was not an ideal model for housing the homeless, it was fundamentally wrong for the City to evict these people from their trailers and tents in the middle of winter and that the City had a moral if not a legal obligation to find alternate housing.

Six months came and went and here we are now, two years later.  The City says the Lins were given opportunities to make changes to the site and seek changes to the zoning but up to this point have not done so.

The Lins, through their lawyer, claim they have tried but have been ‘sandbagged’ by the City’s administration staff.

Because it became a matter of litigation and City council only discusses it in camera, that is without the public or media present, we do not know the facts.

Have the Lins been trying to stall so that their political supporters can deliver a political solution and they won’t have to make any changes? Has the City staff been thwarting the Lins’ efforts in a cold-hearted attempt to throw more homeless people in the street?

We just don’t know yet we rush to judgment. It appears the case may go to court in October or November of this year.

A big part of the emotion around the Maple Pool issue centres on the owners, Jin and Dali Lin.

There is no question they have improved the campground 100 per cent, bringing some peace and order to a place once described as a ‘Third World hellhole.’ Whether by providing barbecues, supporting street soccer or offering a helping hand to residents, they have made a difference. Jin Lin is a respected figure in the community, and her work with the Multicultural Society has made her a real asset for the Comox Valley.

However, before we start comparing anyone to Mother Teresa, let’s put things into perspective.

The Lins are running a business, a campground. It is a business that is traditionally very seasonal and weather-dependent. With year round rental of the trailer spots, approximately 56 or so, at a minimum of 350 dollars a month, we are talking about a $200,000+ enterprise.

It is not a Community Living Project, despite the fact they keep referring to it as one. Those are specifically for people with developmental disabilities.

No one is denying the Lins’ ability to run a private business providing a certain segment of the homeless population with one option.

However, is this the solution we want? Is this the model of low-income housing we need? Camping in January on a floodplain?

Certain politicians who would say yes. Their concern for the homeless doesn’t seem to extend to homeless people who do not live at the Maple Pool campground.

The debate around the homeless shelter on Cliffe was quite demoralizing for many, with its fear mongering and poor-bashing.  Now that they have killed off an emergency homeless shelter to replace the Salvation Army shelter that is underfunded and inadequate, they are making noises that Maple Pool would make a good shelter.

In their eyes it is ideal. The homeless are out of sight and at a distance from the downtown area, and it doesn’t cost the City any money.

This essentially privatizes a social service.  No wonder local conservatives, even failed political candidates, have taken up the banner.

On the mapleliving.ca website, dedicated to spreading the message about Maple Pool’s legal and political battles, a video boasts that the Maple Pool issue got Larry Jangula elected mayor, as forty of the residents were taken to the polls to vote, some for the first time.  Perhaps one could argue that whoever provided this service is to be commended for their promotion of citizen involvement but did those residents realize they were the chosen few, while their homeless friends elsewhere were left in the cold, literally?

Despite the fact that the City has been involved in litigation or possible litigation around Maple Pool for over a year now and under the Community Charter Act all members of Council are to refrain from discussing the matter publically, this hasn’t prevented Mayor Jangula from commenting on it.

In a Comox Valley Record article from Jan. 11, he states, “It’s all about zoning. My concern is that these people have been allowed to operate for over 30 years under that zoning.”

This is exactly the Lins’ lawyer’s position. When Mayor Jangula speaks publicly on this issue, it puts those councillors who do abide by the Charter at an unfair disadvantage.

So what is the solution? With regard to the Maple Pool campground, AHERO’s position still seems sound.

If the campground does pose a risk to residents there, either the Lins have to make changes, and not just a rezoning change, or it will have to revert to a seasonal campground. However, before the City can act, they must find alternate housing. Of course this Council, which blocked a shelter for people already on the street, won’t do that, so I guess in the short term we are at a stalemate.

The longer-term solution has already been put forth and that is a spectrum of housing options. L’Arche has a project they are working on that would house people with developmental disabilities; some of the homeless population are in that category.

They requested money from the City so they could get some architectural plans drawn up before applying to a funding source.  The Comox Valley Transition Society is looking at a project for next stage housing for women coming out of Lilli House. Dawn to Dawn, which seems to have the ear of the powers that be, is looking to continue their strategy of housing some homeless people in apartments throughout the city. Maple Pool campground is probably another piece of the puzzle.

And, of course, there is still a need for a new emergency shelter. There are probably other projects out there. The point is that there is not one solution and trying to shoehorn all the homeless into one or two models will not serve the people who are homeless or the community as a whole.

Of course that is where the problem is.  We have a bottleneck, a lack of affordable housing. There has not been any rental housing built in this city in the past 20 years.

The rental apartments that exist are converted into condos.  Examples of necessary, if not very desirable, cheap housing like the old Courtenay Hotel are demolished and the lots left vacant.  The federal government in the 1990s eliminated almost all of the funding for public and subsidized housing and the provincial government in the past 11 years has only purchased some SRO (single room occupancy) hotels in Vancouver and Victoria, which, while commendable, does not increase the stock of housing.  The private market will not provide this type of housing because there is not a large enough margin of profit.

Still we continue to elect politicians at all three levels of government whose mantra is that government services have to be minimized or eliminated. Meanwhile, we in the Comox Valley are left to fight over everdiminishing resources. It is a large problem that will not be solved overnight but in the meantime the chasm between those that have and those that don’t continues to grow.

To put things in perspective, resolving the issue of Maple Pool is necessary, but until the larger issues are dealt with, we will not solve the bigger problem of homelessness in our community.

Brian Charlton,

Comox Valley

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