FILE — A group of homeless people gather at Linear Park. (Parker Crook/Morning Star)

COLUMN: Vernon’s relationship status with homeless is complicated

Unfortunately, no Band-Aid type of help (short term anything) will make that much difference.

Carole Fawcett

For the Morning Star

We’ve all seen them — the panhandlers, street entrenched people who drive their massively overflowing carts or wagons in downtown Vernon, sometimes blocking the way for seniors using scooters or sitting outside businesses asking for money.

Then there is the “linear park” population that happens almost daily — an average age of about 20. Of course, while housing is a big issue, it isn’t the only issue.

A large percentage of the homeless have mental health issues and they may use drugs as a way to cope and/or numb their particular mind challenge. Drugs are a big issue in Vernon (a hub of illegal gang drug activity) and it seems that people flock to the Okanagan due to our (normally) warm and sunny environment. If you have to sleep outside, it might be nicer to do so in the Okanagan than any other area of the province.

Also, it appears that harm reduction, which originally was used as a short-term transition to long-term treatment, has now become an ongoing treatment. The harm reduction philosophy was introduced to allow addicts to use safely. Safe injection sites and methadone programs are an example of harm reduction. The idea is that these services may prevent more serious disease that can come from unclean needle use. Methadone was thought to legally replace heroin, although it is now known that methadone is harder to stop using than heroin and there has been more successful with Suboxone as it shuts down the brains receptors for opioids.

It is interesting that there are entire industries now that deal with this problem, with money flowing from the provincial and federal governments. In fact, I discovered that poverty and the issues around it are very political. It also appears that different agencies are almost protective of their particular area of perceived expertise.

Unfortunately, no Band-Aid type of help (short term anything) will make that much difference, other than keeping those that need help dependent on services. Complex mental health and addiction services are required and offered for the long term. As one person I spoke with said, “Getting people better saves money”. Subsequently, keeping people dependent costs money.

Not all of the street people are homeless. Some do have a place to stay and panhandle on the side, with one person making $400 by standing on a meridian at a busy intersection with a sign that says he is hungry.

Merchants in downtown Vernon tell me they are tiring of the issues that are associated with this population of vagrants. Fecal matter found by their back entryways, needles and other drug paraphernalia found in the back alleys, garbage and re-cycling strewn all over the place (including clothing, food wraps, etc.). Then there is the shoplifting that occurs, disrupting and adding to the cost of doing business. Recently added to the frustration is the on-again, off-again garbage and recycling pickup by the City. Understandably it can feel disheartening to the business owner, as they put long hours into their business, and when incidents occur that they have no control over, it can be frustrating.

One service provider suggested that defecating is a natural thing, which is true, but does it have to be done right at the back door of a business, on the entry steps? It might be an idea for the city to provide a bathhouse type of environment with toilets and showers with supervision provided. It would make a difference.

Several street people have been observed throwing away the food that a well-intentioned soul has given them, as they would prefer money to continue their drug or alcohol use.

One person I met is trying to make a difference. He sets up Monday, Wednesday and Fridays on 34th street (between 10 a.m. and noon) and pays anyone who gives him a used needle five cents. He has bio-hazard containers and when I spoke with him, he had collected 1,656 used needles in a short period of time. As a former drug and alcohol user, he was tired of watching from the sidelines as committees are formed with bureaucracy slowing the process of doing something constructive. Thank you to Lyle O’Sullivan for having the chutzpah to do something.

The Mission offers a program that provides ‘street cleanup’ once a week. Peers go out with staff and volunteers to pick up needles and drug paraphernalia that may be in the alleys, streets, parks, etc. Their funding allows them to pay the ‘peers’ $5 to help find the needles, but they do not pay for used needles to be dropped off at the Mission.

One of the many stories shared with me involved a van driver observing drug use in action, with an RCMP vehicle driving slowly by and observing the drug use and then driving away. The employee suggested that if he was to walk around with an open can of alcohol, he would likely be fined and wondered why this same rule didn’t apply when open drug use was observed by the local constabulary.

Now granted, that is somewhat simplistic as the whole situation is more complex than that one incident, but it represents how the average citizen might be feeling. Businesses are feeling the frustration, due to the lack of follow-through with the ongoing behaviours that directly impact them.

My next column will be from the perspective of the homeless. I am hoping we can become less judgmental, offer up compassion and perhaps offer some longer-term changes that would empower and help those who feel oppressed to get off the streets and feel better about themselves. In my humble opinion, it would be better than enabling them with short-term ‘fixes.’

Carole Fawcett is a freelance writer, editor and member of The Professional Writers Association of Canada

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