A B.C. woman who spent nearly 15 years trying to bar the homeless from trespassing on her property is now advocating for them.
Between 2004 and 2018, Peggy Allen made approximately 500 calls to police about incidents involving people from the emergency shelter next door in Abbotsford, B.C.
“I became this crazy person that couldn’t function,” she told The Current.
During that time, Peggy and her husband, Ron Allen, recall numerous incidents they say are enough to “put fear into your hearts.”
One such affair saw Peggy chased through the house and off the balcony by a person who, she believed, was having a bad trip from an illicit drug. She fell backwards, landing on the ground that was 1.2 metres below, and injured her neck and back.
However, she had a revelatory moment in September 2018 when a woman walking up her driveway swore at her, she says.
“I looked at her and I just went crazy and I started running toward her. I was going to hurt her,” Allen recalled.
Then a “light switched” in her brain.
“I just stopped halfway down there and I said: ‘Peggy, I hate the way you are. This isn’t who you are,'” she said.
“I turned around, I went back to the house and I just bawled my head off.”
She describes the experience as an “incredible metamorphosis” in her life and is now giving back to the people who she once referred to as the source of her “nightmare.”
“I don’t expect anyone to jump on the bandwagon that lives around here because they’ve been through hell and they’ve had a lot of bad things happen. But I got to tell you that what I’m gaining from helping these people way outweighs what I lost.”
The Allens and their two sons, who were 7 and 10 at the time, moved into their home on Gladys Avenue, near Highway 11 and S Fraser Way, in September 1989.
The lush, half-acre property was secluded, shrouded by a forest of towering cedars. The bungalow itself is removed from the road — separated by a long, 50-metre driveway — and the entire property backs onto a creek.
“It was the perfect life for us,” Peggy Allen recalled, an emotional tone hanging in her voice.
“Our kids could run free and we could have animals.”
Fifteen years later, the Salvation Army Centre for Hope moved into the space next door, and she says the family’s “life changed overnight.”
They tried to move, but couldn’t sell the house for the amount they paid.
When nothing changed, she invested thousands of dollars to line the perimeter of the property with a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire — like something from a prison — and outfitted its exterior with a security camera system.
Yet the problems persisted.
“The point is it’s all little tiny stuff, but it’s huge,” Allen said of the emotional scars they had as a result of the encounters.
In addition to serving as an emergency shelter, the Salvation Army delivers a litany of services — such as a meal centre, mental health supports and addiction counselling.
When The Current visited the Allens’ home, 14 tents were pitched on the shoulder of Gladys Avenue, occupied by people either accessing the facility’s wide range of services or transitioning out of it. Others were milling around the Allens’ property on their way to and from the shelter.
Homeless counts take place every year over a 24-hour period in Abbotsford.
Last year, volunteers identified 233 homeless people over the 24-hour survey period on March 19 and 20. The city report notes this is, at best, only an estimate, and does not capture every homeless person in the community.
Of those surveyed by volunteers, 111 people were living on the street in tents or makeshift structures or sleeping in their cars/campers, instead of one of Abbotsford’s seven shelters.
Another 45 were couchsurfing, while 66 people used shelters.
The city report says the survey respondents cited a lack of affordable housing and the steep housing market as the top reasons they are homeless.
Peggy Allen is in the process of modifying a shipping container into a bathroom with a sink to be placed at the entrance to her driveway.
She also volunteers with Business Engagement Ambassador Project (BEAP) to try and shine a “whole different light” on homelessness.
The city-run outreach program, which was started by people with lived experience of homelessness or drug addiction, aims to repair frayed relationships between business owners and residents by paying them to clean up outside their properties.
Rob Larson works for BEAP. He used to live on the streets, and says his interactions with Allen have changed his life.
“The way I look at it, if you give back a little bit to your community, they’ll give you back a whole armful of what you might need here, or just open arms, right?” he said.
The pair are now good friends, a reality Peggy said she never imagined during their first meeting.
He hugged me and he cared for me without even knowing me.– Peggy Allen
“He hugged me so hard the first time I met him, he scared the hell out of me,” she recalled.
“But I was the one with the fear, not him.
“He was the one with the love and that was one of the first steps for me to make a change in my thinking because he hugged me and he cared for me without even knowing me.”
When people ask what changed her perspective, she answers: “Nothing… I changed my mind.”
Click ‘listen’ near the top of this page to hear the full documentary.
Written by Amara McLaughlin, produced by Anne Penman and The Current’s Documentary editor Joan Webber.