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Moccasin Flats garden bringing life to Prince George homeless community

Advocate looks to Medicine Hat example as way to fix problem that plagues downtown core

It’s only a small fruit and vegetable plot that’s sprung from the soil at Moccasin Flats.

But for the people living in the downtown camp that thriving garden has become a symbol of hope, a beacon of possibility they will someday develop their own roots and ditch a vagabond lifestyle nobody wants.

The 30 or so residents of the Flats who sleep in tents and store their worldly possessions under tarps in their makeshift community have seen new life created – beds of marigolds, yarrow, potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchinis, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries and raspberries.

Beyond sight of the heaps of garbage that taint the entrance to the encampment at the east end of Fifth Avenue downtown,  the living colour of the garden and the food it provides is in stark contrast to the troubled history of Moccasin Flats, a place most of Prince George would rather see not exist at all. For the tens of thousands in our city who have turned their backs on the occupiers, considered the scourge of society, there are dozens more compassionate souls responding to their needs and finding ways for them overcome their daily struggles.

Hank is one of those caring people. Twenty-six years ago he earned a diploma as a social worker but the now-sixtyish man in his reflective vest doesn’t need formal credentials to do his job. He’s lived life on the streets and everybody in the Flats knows they can count on him as one of their protectors if things ever go bad. Hank doesn’t have a tent but brings a sleeping bag from his home in the city to sleep under the stars in a spot in the trees.

”I’m a front-line worker and I’m here to help and you can’t run away from me,” said Hank.

“Don’t shut the door and pretend Moccasin Flats is not happening. Every soul has good in them and we’re moving forward,. Everybody bitches about the system and society. Down here, we’re kind of avoiding it, no tax, no rent, it’s that sense of freedom I think that we’re all after.”

Drugs are rampant in the Flats and they get delivered to customers by dealers driving a van down the dirt road that serves as Mainline Street.   

“The barter system works here and a lot of it is dope,” said Hank. “I’ll trade you a lighter for a hoot or I’ll trade you stuff for food. Drugs is in here bigtime, just about all of them, and they trade that. I’ll trade you this computer for an 8-ball kind of thing. That’s what goes on here.”

Hank moved to Prince George from Bella Coola in 1973. As a former safety officer who worked in the mines he knows that growing garbage heap at the west entrance to Moccasin Flats is not only an eyesore, but a violation of city bylaws.

While some of the trash is discarded possessions or burnt remains of shelters, how do you explain the discarded freezer? Hank knows much of that garbage is being dumped by city people who drive to the site.

He’s seen people poking through the pile looking for something they can use and is worried someone is going to get pricked by a dirty syringe or get their hands covered in something gross if the city continues to ignore it. He would like to see it cleaned up before someone gets hurt and said there should have a dumpster for their trash, as well as a few portable toilets on the site.

Last year there were trash bins at either end of the Flats but those were taken away and not replaced when the city brought in heavy equipment in November to bulldoze the camp, after relocating about 20 residents into supportive housing. That came after the city lost a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to shut down the Flats encampment.

A few residents returned and stuck it out through the winter, and the arrival of warmer weather brought dozens more back to the site. For the homeless community. Moccasin Flats and Millennium Park at First and George are the two most popular downtown campsites. More people have migrated to Millennium over the past couple weeks to be closer to the soup kitchens and needle exchange.

During the dog days of summer and one of warmest, driest Augusts on record, Terry Luggi has kept the people of the Flats hydrated and clean. Luggi’s employer, the Prince George Nechako Aboriginal Employment and Training Association (PGNAETA), brought a 500-gallon water tank to the site and residents are using the water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Every day it seems, more new people are coming to set up tents.

“This is all rooted in trauma, and multiple layers of trauma these people have had in their lives,” said Luggi. “There’s addictions because of trauma and people lose their homes because of addictions. I always am hopeful, especially when I see the garden. We can’t work in isolation to find a solution, we need to come and ask the people what they want and need.”

Friday garden parties

On Friday afternoons the garden is the focal point where Flats residents and social workers meet to share their concerns as they munch on donated sandwiches, snacks and soft drinks. Delilah Joseph arrived for the meeting dragging a small suitcase on wheels, hoping to find an alternative to sleeping in tents and shelters.

“I want to see if I can get a place or something, because I’ve been living in two tent cities and there’s been too much weird shit going on,” said Joseph, now in her third year of homelessness. “There’s a guy stalking me, he’s cutting my tent up, peeking at me every night, and he was touching my head while I was sleeping.

“I need a safer place and my son needs a place as well. He’s 23 years old and he finished graduating from college and he needs a place to stay. He stays at his uncle’s but they do crack and drink and they’re tripping him out and he stays out all night, sometimes, walking the street by himself. It’s not safe.”

Hooked on heroin for 20 years, Joseph needs a safe place to try to wean herself from drugs, away from the predators who wait until she falls asleep to steal her phone or try do her harm. Having lived through opioid withdrawal, she knows firsthand it can lead to bouts of severe diarrhea and won’t risk that happening to her until she has four walls and a roof over her head.

“I can’t quit drugs living in a tent, no way,” she said. “I need my own place because I’ll have to sleep it off. That’s dangerous in a tent and I’ll be pretty dirty when I poop.”

Drug addiction grips most, but not all of the people who cross paths with Joseph on the downtown streets.

“I run into lots of old ladies that are in the shelters or in tent city and they aren’t on drugs,” she said. “They’re old and rents are expensive, like $1,600. They can’t pay that when they’re on disability.”

Originally from Kitimat, Skyy McGourty-Vernon, 27, is well educated and has no addictions. It was a lack of affordable housing that forced her to come to live with friends in a tent in the Flats three months ago.

“I lost my basement suite I was living in and it’s hard to find a place to rent around here that you can afford by yourself,” said McGourty-Vernon. “I have a son who is living with my mom right now. He’s seven and I’ve been trying to figure that out and find a roommate.

“Everyone here tries to take care of each other. If people came down here and checked it out and seen how much it’s cleaned up, maybe they’d have a different perspective of it. People just think it’s bad (people) here. We just need more affordable housing in this town.”

From athlete to addict overnight

Moccasin Flats resident Chris McBride was once an MVP athlete scoring rugby ties and racking up points as a basketball centre for the Roadrunners at Kelly Road Secondary School. His rugby team was so dominant one year they outscored local opponents 256-0 and won a provincial silver medal. He also excelled in wrestling and was a track and field sprinter.

Life as he used to know it changed forever after he got his girlfriend pregnant and they moved to Maple Ridge. He tried heroin, became addicted and spent 2 ½ years living in a tent settlement in a park. Now he tries to get through life without overdosing, hooked on the cheaper and more plentiful substitute, fentanyl, a drug that continues to kill six of B.C. residents every day. He knows the danger but can’t live without it.

“What got me in this lifestyle, I peer-pressured myself into trying some one night and I was addicted the second I tried it,” the 35-year-old McBride said.

“If it was a choice, I’d be doing heroin, but you can’t get it. With fentanyl, there’s nothing there, lights are on, lights are off, there’s no enjoyment. I describe heroin as a warm hug from God.”

In the two months he’s lived at the Flats, McBride has seen two tents burn. The owners of one of them blamed McBride and his friends who share a site. They cut their tent open and smashed some of their belongings.

“There’s so much hate, and people can’t leave other peoples’ stuff alone,” McBride said. “I won’t go to sleep here, I just can’t do it, and I have a few spots around town I randomly go to. I don’t want to be set on fire.”

Female residents of the Flats are more vulnerable. A woman named Danielle was shot and wounded in the Flats last summer. McBride says everybody is on high alert a motivated to act when a woman is in distress.

“We really look out for the girls here and if they’re screaming or we hear anything, they’re going to have five or six guys checking out the situation almost immediately, because there’s so much of that with girls going missing,” McBride said. “Even on the street, I’ve heard the past month or two that there’s been some abductions, some beatings of street women, working girls. That’s not what they sign up for.”

Samantha Heatherington, an outreach peer worker for Uniting Northern Drug Users (UNDU), a non-profit group that advocates for people who live with drug addictions, grew up in Prince George and moved away from the city for 14 years. She moved back a year ago and was shocked at how much the core of the city has changed.

“Downtown was nothing like this 14 years ago, the crime, the homeless, the drug dealing, the violence, it’s very sad,” said Heatherington. “Downtown is not the same as it was when I was in my teens.”

The streets are becoming more dangerous and Niki Hanson blames the higher toxicity of illicit drugs that flooded the market and touched off the fentanyl crisis in 2015. She’s seen it in her own family. Her 26-year-old daughter died of a fentanyl overdose nearly five years ago.

“It’s not a drug problem, it’s a policy problem, and we need to have access to safer supply of substances,” said Hanson , who works with several drug user groups in the region. “People have alcohol and they should also have a safe supply of drugs. My daughter used Oxycontin prior to using fentanyl and only used it here just to feel normal because she had an anxiety and depression disorder. It was the one thing she knew she could take that would make her feel OK. She couldn’t get any of that and got some fentanyl and she died.

“We currently have a war on people right now, and this is how it’s manifested.”

Garden project years in the making

April Ottesen and Hanson used to volunteer as a gardeners at the Miranda Garden on Milburn Avenue until it was plowed over two years ago to eliminate it as a gathering place for drug users. Together, they got the Moccasin Flats garden started in June after a fundraiser that provided enough money to buy 11 yards of topsoil.

They have the space to make the garden much bigger and want to make that happen, they just need more topsoil. UNDU provides workers who get paid $15 an hour to tend the garden. A Facebook campaign raised  enough money to hire three peers who have been working two two-hour shifts per week, but that gardener’s budget has almost been tapped.

Ottesen, a former downtown restaurateur, cooks two meals each week to encourage the people of the Flats to gather at the garden. She knows her edible landscaping has instilled pride and a sense of ownership.

“They get some positive reinforcement when they come to the garden, they get psyched about growing and they all say that it makes such a difference having this here,” said Ottesen. “It’s like life, and reconnecting with that.”

“If we want to transform this problem I think gardens are a great place to start. This garden is my piece of the solution to ending homelessness, because  if we don’t have food sovereignty, we don’t have sovereignty. These folks are relying on the system for everything and it completely fails them over and over again.”

Maybelline John was one of the lucky ones. She kicked her amphetamine habit with help from 12 different agencies and is now off the streets, living in her own apartment. She said she had no choice but to quit drugs after losing her mother, brother and sister, all from overdoses in 2015, within 10 months of each other. Her five-year-old son provides more incentive for her to stay sober. They come by regularly to visit the Flats to see some familiar faces and check out the garden.

“It’s thriving and everybody’s going to come and get together when they harvest it, kind of like a potlatch deal,” John said. “There’s still a lot of people on the streets and some of them are waiting to get placed, but there’s chronic homelessness. They’re still outside and it should be taken care of. I think the city should build a hotel.”

Homelessness and drug abuse go hand-in-hand. Addicts spend their money on drugs instead of food and accommodations and lose their homes. Hanson has seen other cities build neighbourhoods of tiny houses to try to get people off the street but they also need a network of support to unplug themselves from the social welfare system and find self-sufficiency. Without it, tent cities will continue to blot city landscapes.

“When you take somebody off the streets and put them in a house, it’s a lot different living here than it is inside a home,” said Hanson. “We’re kind of like feral kitties and it’s hard to bring us together. You  can’t just put people into housing and think they’re going to be successful. They have to be ready. It’s a different culture here than it is to be housed and you have to ease into it.”

Made-in-Medicine-Hat homeless solution

Prince George residents and civic and provincial politicians need to be reminded that places like Moccasin Flats are not going away without interventions. To tackle the problem, Ottesen says the city should look at cities like Medicine Hat, which last year declared it had achieved functional zero homelessness, meaning there were no more than three people without permanent homes for three consecutive months.

The Alberta city of 65,000 discovered that by investing in socialized housing they are actually saving taxpayers money in reduced social, medical and policing costs. In Medicine Hat, the name of anybody who accesses a social service who lacks a fixed address is put into central list which tracks them and will provide them a permanent home within 10 days. There is no requirement for that individual to be sober or quit drugs to qualify for housing.

“Taxpayers pay $85,000-150,000 a year per homeless person but Medicine Hat has turned that around and they have figured out it only costs $27,000 a year to house someone,” said Ottesen. “These people cost far more broken than if you give them a fighting chance at a home. If you’re housed, you can get better and you can work on recovering. Addictions are there because you can’t cope with the reality of living, whether you’ve got trauma or past injury, and unless you get treatment that doesn’t change.”

Ottesen is hopeful, with a civic election coming in October, the new council will help drive positive change.

“I think we’ve had $3.5 million targeted for homelessness come to the city in the last two years and we still don’t have toilets, we still don’t have water, we don’t have a dumpster,” said Ottesen.

“It irritates the crap out of our downtown residents and the downtown businesses people and who do they hate? They don’t hate our civic leaders, they hate the homeless people. But if the homeless people were given some services they wouldn’t be pooping on the sidewalk. If they had hand-washing stations, maybe they could get a job. How do you get a job when you’re dirty and you’re thinking about where I’m going to poop and I don’t have a roof over my head.

“When government chooses to ignore the problem and not make any initiatives at all you have to wonder why.”