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‘We’re not living, we’re just existing’: Roadside rest stop becomes makeshift trailer park for homeless

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It’s probably not what you’d expect at a provincial rest area. Weary travellers pulling into roadside rest stops in Abbotsford might be surprised to discover parking lots turned into makeshift trailer parks for those experiencing homelessness.

“I have stopped in here numerous times in the last 20 years and it didn’t look anything like this,” said Darcy Simpson, who stopped at the Bradner Rest Area.

“If I didn’t have to really go to the washroom, I would’ve kept driving,” he said, calling the situation “sad."

Though signs indicate overnight camping is banned, there’s a makeshift shelter as well as people living in cars. But mostly, there’s RV’s and trailers that aren’t passing through, but are parked here long-term.

“I don’t want to be here,” said Sonya, who didn’t want to give her last name.

“I’m embarrassed to be here. I’m 49 years old,” she said.

She’s been living in a trailer with her husband and three grown children for a year-and-a-half, though she initially thought it would only be a few weeks.

She said her daughter was only 16 when they ended up without a place to live.

“I feel like an absolute failure. I feel like the worst mom in the world,” she said, explaining that she wishes she could do more for her kids.

Sonya said her husband works full-time, but it’s not enough to make ends meet.

It’s the same for her neighbours, including Chardelle, whose husband also has full-time employment and commutes to Vancouver.

“I can’t see us ever being able to afford a house, ever,” Chardelle said.

“Rent, insurance for vehicles going up, food going up, fuel going up. Everything’s going up. We just can’t afford it anymore,” she explained.

Chardelle said they had been living in a rental, but their debt kept growing and they had to make a change.

Last summer, they moved into a campervan. They recently took out a loan and with some help from family, bought a trailer. They’ve been at the Bradner Rest Area since October.

“I understand the stigma around it. I never actually thought I’d ever be in a position like this in my whole life,” she said.

“We’re not just squatting because we want to. We’re not here because we want to cheat the system.”

“We’ve had people call us ignorant, useless people. And it’s sad they call us that,” said Brian Young.

He’s been living in a trailer at the rest area for two years.

He said many people here, including seniors and those with disabilities, have fallen on hard times.

Young’s wife works, though her hours are being cut back. He lost his restaurant job.

“When I lost my job, we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent so they booted us out,” he said.

“All we can do is keep praying and hopefully we leave. But we’ll see what happens,” Young said.

Campers in the upper lot have formed a community of sorts, but some worry about their safety and stay away from the back part of the lot.

Abbotsford police said they do proactive patrols in the area and there has been some illegal activity uncovered, on occasion, in the back portion of the rest stop, including stolen vehicles.

The Transportation Ministry said in a statement that it’s aware of the illegal, long-term camping.

“The ministry’s maintenance contractors maintain provincial highway rest areas and monitor activity at the rest areas on a regular basis,” the statement said.

“Travellers can feel safe stopping at these rest areas, knowing maintenance staff are there regularly.”

Meanwhile, the housing minister said homelessness is a growing concern throughout North America.

He said 408 units of supportive and affordable housing have been funded in Abbotsford, though it’s not clear when new units will open.

“Not everybody that is an encampment, not everybody that is at a rest stop, is dealing with addictions or mental health,” said Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon.

“There is a housing crisis. We are just not building enough housing fast enough to support people,” he said, blaming years of underfunding by previous governments for the difficulties.

He also said there is a rent supplement for people who need it, but that housing alone is not the solution. Kahlon said mental health and other supports also need to be in place, something he said the province is working on.

Chardelle said she’s struggled with mental health, which was amplified during the pandemic, and played a role in her decision to move out of housing and into an RV. She’s tried to find counselling, however cost and availability continue to be barriers.

Sonya said she’s grateful her family can be together, but added, “We’re not living. We’re just existing.”

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