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HomeBusinessNDP government admits it doesn’t know how many homeless live in an Abbotsford highway rest stop

NDP government admits it doesn’t know how many homeless live in an Abbotsford highway rest stop

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Bob Mackin

As the nights grow longer and colder, the B.C. government has lost track of how many people are living homeless at a rest stop off Highway 1 in Abbotsford. 

An April 25 “decision briefing note” to NDP Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Rob Fleming about the Bradner Rest Area said it was occupied with “15 to 20 permanent residents.”

Bradner Rest Area in 2022 (B.C. Government/FOI)

Asked about the present state of the site, Fleming’s representatives did not respond and the Ministry of Housing referred a reporter to BC Housing. 

“It’s not known the exact count of individuals at this site given that individuals are transitory,” said BC Housing spokesman Tim Chamberlin. “There are approximately 30 vehicles at the site. Currently, most individuals at this site are not interested in connecting with outreach and services.”

That briefing note, obtained under the freedom of information law, was finally disclosed on Tuesday, five months after the original request for briefing notes and reports held by Fleming and senior ministry management and highways operations officials.  

Chamberlin said outreach workers, including staff from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, visit multiple times weekly to conduct welfare checks and refer people to health care, income assistance and shelters.  

The April briefing note to Fleming was headlined “decision briefing note” and contained three options. The options are not visible and it is unclear what, if any, decision was made. The document was heavily censored because the government feared releasing information about advice and recommendations, security, intergovernmental relations and government finances.

The rest stop, opened in the early 1990s on the westbound side of the Trans-Canada, between the Mt. Lehman and 264th Street Interchanges, has 80 passenger vehicle stalls, 17 spots for commercial vehicles, buses and vehicles with trailers, 14 picnic tables and 12 bear-proof trashcans, plus heated and plumbed washrooms and a sani-dump.

“Over the last couple years, the rest area has seen an increase in overnight campers that has formed into an encampment,” said the briefing note. “Currently, the rest area is occupied with 15 to 20 permanent residents living in recreational vehicles, trailers, campers, passenger vehicles, tents, and/or wooden structures. The encampment has resulted in travellers and commercial vehicle drivers not being able to find suitable space to rest due to occupation by transient peoples.”

The briefing note said the ministry’s maintenance contractor has “on occasion refused to attend the site due to aggressive behaviour from residents.” When the rest area is cleared, the same individuals return and resume their encampment within a couple of days. 

“Additionally, the ministry has received numerous complaints regarding motorist safety, access impairment by commercial and private users, damage to infrastructure, and aggressive behaviour of the residents. The site is often littered with hazardous waste and the contractor is having difficulty keeping the site clean and ensuring that the washroom facilities are safe for users.”

Bradner Rest Area in 2022 (B.C. Government/FOI)

The Bradner Rest Area was one of four area homeless camps on government land, according to an Oct. 5, 2022 briefing note. Fifty-eight people were living near Highway 1 and Sumas Way at the Lonzo Road camp in nine motor homes, three vans, two cars and a truck, 21 tents, seven permanent structures and a tent trailer. 

“It’s understood there are few (if any) alternative locations in the Abbotsford area for the individuals to move,” the briefing note said. 

Last June, the Lonzo Road site was cleared and fenced to make way for a temporary 50-bed shelter. The Ministry of Housing budgeted $4 million for the facility, to be operated by the Lookout Housing and Health Society. Remaining residents were offered housing. 

Chamberlin said there are now more than 70 supportive units in Abbotsford and nearly 200 shelter spaces. 

A month after the documents were requested in June, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure demanded a $45 payment over and above the $10 application fee. It claimed the time to search records would be 30 minutes more than the three free hours granted under the law. The ministry also claimed it would need a full-hour to prepare the records for release. 

Over the summer, the ministry took two time extensions, one of which was approved by the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which is not legally required to consult with the applicant. 

Ideally, the government should respond with records in 30 business days or less. The freedom of information law, however, contains numerous loopholes for delays that favour the government and its desire to manage its image. 

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