BEYOND THE HEADLINES: More needs to be done

Senior reporter Richard Rolke looks at the homeless camp situation

Richard Rolke

Richard Rolke

There’s no question that homeless camps make most of us feel uncomfortable.

As we drive past, we can see tarps poking out amongst trees as a range of items cover the ground. Some of the questions that come to mind are, “How do these people cook?” or, “Where do they go to the bathroom?”

And of course, issues such as fighting and drugs can spill over into the adjacent neighbourhood, impacting residents and businesses.

“We can’t let it go on. We have to deal with it,” said Coun. Scott Anderson at Monday’s council meeting.

And deal with it, they did.

City staff recently rolled into homeless camps near Polson Park and the Vernon Square mall. Tarps and tents were pulled down, and bulldozers pushed everything into piles.

“The camp sites and abandoned materials were unsanitary and unsafe, putting public safety at risk,” stated a staff report.

The scene was troubling for many.

“I had no idea of the magnitude of the mess,” said Coun. Brian Quiring.

In fact, there was so much stuff, cleanup and disposal cost the city $18,000.

Given the magnitude of the situation, civic leaders are convinced more needs to be done to keep tent camps from taking hold.

“They are becoming more than a little camp,” said Quiring.

“There are sofas. We let them get a little too far.”

Council agreed to dismantle camps five days after a notice has been posted. The fly in the ointment, though, is that the city can’t just charge in and kick the squatters out.

The courts have ruled that eviction notices can’t be posted at homeless camps if local shelters are full and the occupants have nowhere to go. And that makes sense, as shutting down a homeless camp if there aren’t accommodations could force them into inappropriate areas such as the middle of parks.

Now the city did the right thing and didn’t send the cleanup crews in until after discussions with social agencies and assurances that there were shelter beds open.

But that’s not always going to be the case.

Frequently, beds at the John Howard and Gateway shelters, including emergency mats, are full, particularly during winter. Also, most of the beds are only for men, so women are left out in the cold once the few designated for them are gone.

And even if there are beds, some individuals don’t want to go into a shelter for a variety of reasons.

Through all of the council discussion Monday, the one who truly hit the nail on the head was Coun. Dalvir Nahal.

“The bottom line is resources,” she said of a lack of housing and programs directed towards addiction, mental health, employment and life skills.

“We need to put pressure on both governments — provincial and federal.”

Until Ottawa and Victoria get serious about homelessness and providing sustainable funding for services, camps will continue to pop up in Vernon and other communities throughout the province.

And that means the City of Vernon will continue to fork out limited tax dollars to keep ripping tents down.

A reactive approach to homelessness isn’t the solution.

It’s time for senior government to be proactive and join communities and non-profits at the table.