photos: Eva Bardonnex, a camper at the Anita Place tent city in Maple Ridge. Photo submitted.

Burn or freeze?

January Cover Story: Fire inspections of tent cities often mean homeless people must choose

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Eva Bardonnex lived alone in a tent by a river in the woods. She was evicted, twice, from an addiction treatment centre in Maple Ridge, which left her with very little money or chance to get housing. One night, while she was asleep, a man got into her tent and undressed himself. She woke up when he was putting his clothes back on. She was unharmed but shaken.

With no other housing options, last spring she joined the Anita Place encampment, one of the growing number of tent cities assembling in the Lower Mainland, Victoria, Seattle, and Portland.

Living in a tent has many dangers. But one that Bardonnex says she was never aware of was fire. When she lived in the woods, she never worried about fire safety because she was “just too busy trying to stay warm.”

“I definitely used candles,” she said. “I had a little fire spot. I had warm rocks in there and I’d put them in a pot in my tent.”

Most homeless campers living in isolated areas report run-ins with police and bylaw officers—but not firefighters. It isn’t until they join one of these organized encampments they will have their first interactions, which might leave them safe from fire but shivering in the night or worse.

When fire departments descend upon a tent city in winter to enforce fire regulations, it often means the loss of heating equipment and tarps, which means campers must make a choice: retreat to isolated locations and risk catching fire, stay and sleep damp in freezing temperatures, or head to the shelters they are trying to avoid.

The fire department in Maple Ridge didn't instruct the 115 campers on fire safety precautions—simple things like what to do the event of a fire. “They should give us some training,” Bardonnex notes. “I don’t think I’ve ever used a fire extinguisher … and I’ve put out fires.”

“I pretty much just don’t want to freeze to death,” she says. “I worry about getting cold and freezing and not being able to find a way to keep warm. I’m worried about losing more friends to them being cold.”

Left to freeze
On a Tuesday morning earlier this fall, residents of the former Sugar Mountain tent city in East Vancouver woke to Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services removing stoves and heating devices in tents.

Campers alleged firefighters cut some tents open to get inside, and two sleeping women said they woke to firefighters coming inside their tent to remove any type of heater.

It left the camp without a cooking source or heaters, which they say were only turned on outside of the tents.

In this instance, the campers were not provided alternative fire-resistant tarps, tents or other means to stay warm right before winter settled across the region. Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services did not respond to an information or interview request by deadline.

“Even unwittingly,” says Anna Cooper, a lawyer from the Pivot Legal Society working with the Anita Place campers in Maple Ridge, “fire departments are being used to put homeless people in unsafe situations.”

“I think they’re trained to assess a certain kind of safety, fire safety,” she notes. “They keep getting placed in this role as life safety assessors at homeless camps even though they’re only trained at a very narrow area of safety.”

Cooper says fire departments are not able to weigh the risk of a tarp catching fire versus the risk of a person going to hospital for hypothermia or pneumonia, “versus this person getting hit by a bat by an anti-homeless person.”

An early death sentence
From 2007 to 2015, the BC Coroners Service recorded seven homeless people dying by fire and eight people dying from exposure, according to Megaphone’s latest Dying on the Streets report.

The flaw with these numbers is the Coroners Service doesn’t record homeless deaths from pneumonia, except in extenuating circumstances. It doesn't investigate deaths under the care of a physician.

The City of Vancouver’s 2016 homeless count, which is done early in the year when the weather is still cold, revealed 42 per cent had a medical condition or an illness. The median age of death for a homeless person is 40 to 49 years in B.C. It’s 76 years in the general population. The Coroners Service found that 97 per cent of the investigated homeless deaths from 2006 to 2015 were premature, according to Dying on the Streets.

And there are more street homeless deaths recorded in 2015 than “sheltered” homeless deaths.

It’s more economical, Cooper argues, for taxpayer dollars to go toward helping avoid health issues by buying the right tarps, blankets, and fire-resistant tents than it is to not help at all.

For instance, the year-long Super InTent City encampment in 2016 cost the City of Victoria $567,000 directly—just to have more police and city staff (from public works to bylaw officers) patrol the area.

And the average monthly cost of homeless people in hospital beds is $10,900, according to a homelessness report card from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

“People getting sick because they can’t get warm and dry is costing you more money than a tarp,” Cooper says.

“I wonder what percentage of people on the Surrey Strip currently have pneumonia?”

The Strip’s tents
Last fall, Erin Schulte started a petition to allow campers on 135A St. in Whalley—known as “The Strip” encampment—to use flammable tarps because they are much less expensive. It garnered more than 500 signatures.

“Bylaw was taking the tarps down (stating fire code infractions),” she says.

Schulte is a local resident who hands out blankets and started a pop-up soup kitchen that helps feed those on The Strip.

In the three months after her petition there were three fires.

She blames that on people not being allowed a heat source and having to come up with “sneaky” ways to heat their tents at night.

Schulte said that if authorities are concerned about wellbeing but are not allowing internal heat sources then it’s up to them to come up with alternate warming strategies.

Schulte said that while some fire-retardant tarps were given out, they didn’t cover the tents enough to keep people dry.

“I don’t know the plan going into winter but it’s going to just be horrible,” she says. “When it gets below zero, I don’t even want to think about it.

“It’s horrific.”

‘The other side of the story’
Mark Griffioen, deputy chief of the Surrey Fire Department, says their goal for the last year has been to educate people on the street and to “keep them as safe as possible.”

“Any tent sold or made in Canada has to have a label, we follow the rules on tent labels,” he says, noting no flame is permitted inside.

“The difficulty that happens is when people live in a tent, they’re more inclined to engage in behaviour that tents are not designed to support.”

Griffioen says the department handed out rule cards to get people to stop using open flames in their tents. He says the department also set up an exchange for campers to hand over candles and propane for solar power lanterns or blankets.

Recently, they had BC Housing give people fire-resistant tarps.

The problem with blankets is that they get and stay wet. As for other alternatives for keeping warm, he doesn’t know of any.

“We understand the angst and frustration,” he says. “But we see it over and over again, people being burned or even killed. That’s the other side of the story.”

Fire risk
In early November, Jennifer Nielson-Bird was critically injured when her tent caught fire. She was sleeping alone outside a downtown Chilliwack church using candles to stay warm. Her tent and all her belongings burned to ashes.

It’s important to note that in her case she had neither a community of other tents around her nor the resources to stay warm without the inexpensive alternative of candles. But it’s incidents like these that represent the two frustrating aspects of the current homelessness crisis, according to

Gord Ditchburn, president of the BC Professional Fire Fighters’ Association. One, that there is a severe lack of social housing and programs, and two, that there are serious safety concerns posed by open flames in or near tents.

“It’s not our goal to disrupt lives per se, but the onus upon us is to ensure people are safe because, unfortunately, we’ve seen issues where open flames or an exposed heater will cause a fire and then we’re putting people at risk,” he says.

What generally frustrates firefighters, Ditchburn says, is the lack of assistance for the homeless.

When asked if municipalities—that do not support homeless encampments—are instrumentally using fire departments to dismantle tent cities, Ditchburn says that’s not what he’s hearing on the ground.

“We’re not being used as pawns in a political nature,” he says. “We don’t like going in any more than anyone else. It’s not our goal to upset people’s lives but it is our mandate to make sure people are safe.”

Ditchburn did note that fire departments do not typically inspect unless directed by a city, agency, or support group.

Encampment autonomy
Below the 49th parallel, the City of Seattle has allowed six authorized encampments and set aside some administrative costs to provide support. These sites have insurance; some allow tents to be on top of palettes to stay dry; they provide fire-resistant tents and tarps over each; and provide up to five blankets in the summer and 10 blankets in winter per tent.

At Tent City 3, like many of the other authorized sites, there is a kitchen that’s open 24/7, hot meals are served most evenings, and often a shower is installed on site.

The tent cities work with operators on site, but people living in the tents run the site themselves. They earn credits to stay in the camp, are in charge of keeping up good community relationships, and allow a maximum of 100 people (depending on the size of the site).

The Seattle strategy was the city’s way of mitigating the growing cost of cleaning them up in the midst of their own housing crisis. At these sites, they’ve found a way to keep people warm in a wet winter climate like the Lower Mainland.

But here in B.C., city bylaws regulating safety are continuously used to “freeze (homeless) people into submission,” says Pivot’s Cooper. “They’re literally trying to freeze them into shelters.”

“There is this complete failure to recognize that homeless people are capable of talking and engaging in a negotiation process,” she adds. People turn to tents because shelters are overcrowded, full, or people do not feel safe in them—and the affordability crisis is keeping a locking door out of reach.

Cooper says authorities should do much more by way of consulting with people experiencing homelessness and putting non-compliance issues into context because it’s not often due to a malicious intent.

“If you actually sit down with the people who are living there and start asking questions around why they’re not meeting certain regulatory standards, they can tell you why,” she says.

A new order
That’s what happened out in Maple Ridge in November, at the Anita Place encampment that Bardonnex helps run.

The City of Maple Ridge was ready to file an injunction against the encampment. Before doing so, city lawyers sat down with Pivot Legal Society, representing the campers, and hashed out an alternate agreement.

The city rescinded its injunction request to remove campers and instead came to an agreement that the tent city would follow fire regulations to their best efforts, and BC Housing would provide the necessary equipment to campers to help them do so.

The rules include no open flames or combustible items in or near tents, a limit of one tarp on top of a tent, and if a tarp is above many tents it’s suspended at least one metre above. They are allowed one communal camp kitchen with propane only and one fire extinguisher must be near the cooking appliances.

It marks perhaps the first or extremely rare occasion a city is working with an encampment through a successful court order to benefit both sides. And that fire codes are being enforced in a way that provides homeless people with what they need—rather than having tarps, tents, warming devices simply apprehended.

As for how the order is framed, Pivot’s Cooper says that other municipalities and fire departments should follow suit.

“They should be coming to these sites trying to work with people around their safety and I think they should be sitting down with the people who have to live in these circumstances and get a really practical understanding of where there is non-compliance, and ask why,” she says.

It’s more economical, Cooper argues, for taxpayer dollars to go toward helping avoid health issues by buying the right tarps, blankets, and fire-resistant tents than it is to not help at all.

A place to rest
For Bardonnex, staying at Anita Place has, on one hand, made her more of a visible target for violence by anti-homeless people in Maple Ridge. She was recently almost run over by a big black truck that jumped the sidewalk curb behind her when she was walking past the Quality Inn.

On the other hand, she can sleep.

Bardonnex, a grandmother to five, was given fire-safe tarps by BC Housing and follows certain fire regulations as best she can. She’s taken steps by raising her tarp above her tent and clearing the area around it.

“I sleep much better here because no one is going to come into my tent at night because the community all looks out for each other,” she says in the court affidavit.

But “staying warm is the key issue for most of us.”

“The thing is it’s really hard to be homeless,” she says. “We are trying but it is difficult.”


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