As a maintenance contractor for Vernon’s Fruit Plaza, street person Chris Morton has his own stories about life in Vernon’s downtown core.
But attending Wednesday’s meeting among business owners, non-profits, municipal government and RCMP members, mandated by the City of Vernon as part of its Activate Safety Task Force recommendations to discuss homeless issues in Vernon’s business improvement area (BIA), the stories Morton heard at his round table made his already short-cropped hair stand up.
“I’m not a business owner, but I can understand that their livelihood is being affected by public defecation and the drug use out in the open,” said Morton, 23, originally from New Brunswick who came to Vernon “on a whim” at 16.
“I pick up needles on a daily basis. I pick up human feces on a daily basis, which is disgusting.”
Morton said he’s held the maintenance contract at the Fruit Union Plaza, on the corner of Highway 6 and 32nd Avenue, for more than a year. Every morning, for 90 minutes, he cleans the grounds outside, changes the bags in the garbage cans, cleans up the dumpsters out back and does everything he can “to make sure everything looks good.”
So that, and the fact he lives on the street gave Morton a chance to share his unique perspective at Wednesday’s two-hour gathering at the Schubert Centre.
“I’m currently on the street and have been on the street for five years, but I’m not the standard homeless person,” Morton clarifies. “I volunteer 400 hours a year, donate a significant portion of my income. I’m very active in the community and many business owners here today encouraged me to be here, and rightfully so, to give my unique input.”
Facilitated by consultants Urban Matters, Wednesday’s meeting drew close to 80 people taking part in a round-table format to review issues and concerns within the BIA, discuss new and upcoming programs and initiatives and brainstorm potential actions for moving forward.
“There was talk on some of the community’s social issues, diving into what are the issues, what do we love about community, what’s working well and what do we need to support each other to make this even better,” said Jen Casorso of Urban Matters.
Over two hours, she said, Casorso and her team heard a lot about safety.
“A lot of folks are feeling a loss of safety in some ways,” she said. “Or they’ve seen an increase in aggressive behaviour and are not sure what to do about it. Hopefully, this was a space to connect with some of the other agencies, establish partnerships so they can call up and say, ‘Hey, can you help with this?’”
Cera Brown, Upper Room Mission general manager, said the Mission shares many of the concerns expressed at the meeting.
“I think today’s meeting was a step in the right direction,” said Brown. “It was a step toward building a better understanding of what issues we face as a community and how, we as a community, are going to address those issues.”
However, Morton said he didn’t get to say as much as he wanted to in the format. He gave a couple of suggestions on what can be done to improve the homeless situation, one of which is having community policing or bylaw build a rapport with the homeless.
“Find out where they’re sleeping the next night, what their family life is like, find out what they need and build a case for each person,” said Morton, whose suggestion stems from a Social Planning Council of North Okanagan twice-a-year homeless census where those without homes can take a survey and answer personal questions, something Morton thinks is a great idea that should be done more.
Overall, Morton felt Wednesday’s meeting, “did not go in the direction I wish it had.”
“There was a lot of fluff, a lot of talk about what’s nice about downtown,” he said. “But the problems, there wasn’t a lot of talk about ‘the elephant in the room.’ I hope there’s more meetings like this and that they’re a bit more productive.”
Casorso and her team will compile the notes taken Wednesday, put together a few recommendations, and report to Vernon council, hopefully by the end of February. Council – all seven of whom were in attendance Wednesday – will then decide on the next steps.
Vernon council meets Monday and again on Feb. 25.