Lots of words, no action.
Vernon council, after a 33-minute discussion, simply received for information a seven-page letter and multi-signature petition from the Vernon Pensions Accommodation Society (VPAS), based out of the McCulloch Court building on Coldstream Avenue. Its residents, staff, board and ground-floor business owners asked council to do something about the homelessness and drug problems surrounding their building.
The majority of the discussion was centred around responses to emails from the society which were received by mayor and council on Aug. 23.
Mayor Victor Cumming wrote a response on Aug. 28, or Coun. and former mayor Akbal Mund noted, three business days after the receipt of the society’s email.
“There is a process,” Mund said. “We receive a lot of letters from the public and typically what happens is the mayor will respond back on behalf of council. I know sometimes the public is looking for a response from every individual councillor.”
Cumming said he saw the email on a Sunday and councillors Scott Anderson and Kari Gares had responded to the society.
“That makes it challenging,” Cumming said. “When we get a petition on a complex issue like this one, it’s really important we respond as a council, not as individuals. I think that’s really critical. It keeps council’s authority intact. It really undermines the decision-making here if councillors start responding individually when they know it’s a controversial issue.”
Anderson completely disagreed with the mayor.
“There was no response from the mayor as far as I can see until a week later,” Anderson said. “These people are scared. They don’t send in something so they can go through the format and wait two weeks for us to discuss it. They wanted to talk to somebody right away. I offered to do that and went with Coun. (Keri) Gares. We discussed it and made no promises on behalf of council.”
Gares, while respecting Cumming’s point of view, sided with Anderson.
“We have a collective group of seniors and they are another sector of our most vulnerable in Vernon, a lot of them are fearful,” Gares said, sharing a story of her own grandfather who lives in a building near McCulloch Court where a panhandler gained access to the building and went door-to-door asking for money.
The Vernon Pensioners Accommodation Society wrote to council they are ‘”sick and tired” of nothing being done about the ‘homelessness and druggies’ that are out of control in the City of Vernon.” They voiced concerns in the letter about being confronted with homeless-related problems “every time we step out of our home.”
“We get approached for money all the time, followed, obscenities shouted at us,” wrote Lesley Waughman, manager of VPAS.
The seven-page letter included a myriad of questions and complaints from tenants, ranging from why is so much help being given to the homeless and the drug addicts and not to seniors, moving the Upper Room Mission — which is less than two blocks away from McCulloch Court — from downtown and being scared to go out alone.
In his response, Cumming said council has committed and will spend more than $1.3 million to support additional policing this year, funded by local taxpayers, directed additional bylaw enforcement activities in downtown and throughout the city and have increased other clean-up activities in the downtown core.
He also said no location in North America has found “the magic solution” to resolving homelessness issues.
Coun. Kelly Fehr said there are 10 main issues that he sees in the society’s letter, and appreciated Cumming’s reply.
“It’s a larger issue at hand being faced by certainly more than Vernon,” Fehr said. “There is a fair bit we are doing and maybe we can send the society a followup letter, informing them of everything from the sharps pickup program to providing contact information stickers for businesses to put in their windows. I think they’re asking us to be their advocates and there are certain issues in their letter that are not within council’s authority.”
Anderson said council can’t answer calls for action from the public with “we can’t do anything, it’s out of our jurisdiction.”
“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “That’s not why we were elected so we can just pass the buck and say ‘well, talk to them.’ There are things we can do.”