Tents cover a section of city-owned green space in the 1100-block of Main Street across the street from the Penticton RCMP detachment this week. (Mark Brett - Western News)

‘Safety’ in numbers for homeless on improvised Okanagan campsite

Increasing numbers of homeless are spending their nights on Main Street, city-owned property

Chris Elliot has spent the last few nights with about 30 other people in a growing, improvised campground on city green space in the 1100-block of Main Street.

He, like most of the others sleeping in the dozen or so tents on the treed property along the KVR Trail, has nowhere else to go.

“It’s a pact we have, to stay together. It’s just safer this way for everyone,” said Elliott, while the campers took down their tents as five municipal bylaw officers walked the grounds. “We stick together. We’re stronger this way and we can support each other.

“I guess in a way it’s a family, everyone here is a person and for some of them it’s the only family they have.”

READ MORE: Penticton sees mixed results after one month with no sitting, lying on downtown sidewalks bylaw

City of Penticton bylaw officers oversee the take down of the tents Wednesday morning on municipal property on Main Street where homeless people have been camping in increasing numbers for about a week. (Mark Brett – Western News)

This particular morning, the bylaw officers talked and laughed with some of the people as they packed up. One woman, of her own volition, carries a pail around the grounds picking up any debris while another lady rakes the grass where a tent had been taken down.

“This is a clean campsite, everyone takes their turn, they don’t leave anything behind,” said Elliot.

Later in the day, all the tents have been packed up but many of the people remain on the property with their belongings waiting for the evening to come and to set up camp again.

According to Elliot, there are many members of the public who are angry the homeless are there.

“They drive by and honk their horns, shout negative things and obscenities, calling them ‘bums’ and saying ‘get a job,’” said Elliot. “They have no idea who these people are. They all have a story, some of them I’ve known for years and it just breaks my heart.”

But every once in awhile, out of the blue, they experience a little compassion.

A City of Penticton bylaw officer watches as people take down their tents after spending the night on municipal property on Main Street. (Mark Brett – Western News)

“Somebody came along and donated five tents and a couple from out of town, it was their last day here today, went up to Safeway and bought about five or six bags of groceries,” said Elliot. “There were fruit and cheese and bread and orange juice, everybody here was just so grateful and thanked them very much.”

These days, Elliot, who is in his 60s, walks with a cane. His hands and feet are swollen by gout, but he doesn’t ask for help. He used to live in a house he rented with some others and they would take in homeless people on cold nights, but the landlord sold it and he had to move out.

READ MORE: Housing for Penticton’s homeless to be ready September 1

He’s also not a “druggie” like some of the other people in the makeshift camp, and he said watching people shooting up, especially the younger ones, makes him “sick to my stomach.”

He believes Penticton, in addition to having more low-income housing, should have a detox centre and more caseworkers who would to come into the camps.

“People need housing, now, and yeah there are people who need some treatment, drugs and mental health issues, but we need housing,” said Elliot. “The sooner we get that, the less people will be on the streets and the better it will be for everybody.”

Homeless with their legal right to overnight on public lands

Sitting or lying on some downtown sidewalks contravenes a new city bylaw, but overnighting on public property is legal.

According to Donny van Dyk, Penticton’s chief administrative officer, that’s because of Canadian case law.

“(That) set the precedent that municipalities cannot deny individuals in need of housing to the right to use public land for sleeping overnight,” said van Dyk. “Similar to other B.C. communities homelessness is a visible concern here in Penticton and at the current time, the demand for BC Housing units exceeds the available supply in Penticton, leaving some individuals to use this public green space as an area to sleep overnight as well, as you can see during the day, store their possessions.”

Two campers clean up their site at the city-owned green space where they camped the night before. (Mark Brett – Western News)

However, he added: “Anyone found damaging parks or green space, lighting fires, creating debris or making excessive noise will be dealt with accordingly.”

As well, evidence of criminal behaviour is reported by the city directly to the RCMP and van Dyk advised the public to do the same by calling 911 if they witness criminal activity or dangerous behaviour.

READ MORE: Penticton sees mixed results after one month with no sitting, lying on downtown sidewalks bylaw

A spokesperson for a nearby business to a camp that homeless have set up who did not want to be identified for fear of repercussion said the increasing numbers of people at the site is becoming a “nuisance” especially with drug use on their property.

Bylaw officers routinely visit the various locations where camps are known to exist to make sure tents and any other sleeping structures are taken down each morning.

“We appreciate city spaces being well maintained and as long as there is no damage. That will be the legal test as outlined by the courts,” van Dyk said. “We’re managing this situation with our current contingent of bylaw officers and my understanding is that so far the folks in that green space (Main Street) have been co-operating with bylaw officers.”

Earlier this year the city passed a bylaw amendment making it an offence to sit or lie on some downtown sidewalks during the spring and summer however at that time staff said the $100 fine would be a bylaw officer’s “last resort.”

Some people, including RCMP Supt. Ted De Jager (Western News July 10, 2019) have said when people are pushed out of one location they simply have to go somewhere else.

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