January 21, 2016 - 8:00 PM
VERNON - While Kin Race Track sits vacant amidst an ongoing legal dispute, the facility’s empty horse barns appear to have attracted a number of homeless people.
Signs of people camping out in the stables are visible at the race track — hats hang outside individual horse stalls, and bikes, tools, and articles of clothing can be seen in and around the barns. There’s a well packed path through the snow from the parking lot leading past the burned down grandstands to the long row of stalls suggesting people have been coming and going, however we found no one at the camp itself on a weekday morning.
The John Howard Society of the North Okanagan sent an outreach team to the camp this week, and program director Kelly Fehr says they believe about eight individuals are living there now. He says there’s been an active camp there on and off for about six months. Since the closure of the Green Valley Motel, Fehr says a handful of individuals have chosen not to access shelter services.
“Whether there’s beds or not, they’re not coming in,” Fehr says.
Local shelters have been consistently close to or at capacity, with an average of six people a night making use of overflow beds provided through an extreme weather response program. The shelter does its best to make room for everyone, but in cases of extreme addiction or mental health, Fehr says some individuals either won’t come inside, or are turned away for safety reasons.
The concrete footings of the race track grandstands, which burned down in a suspected arson in the summer of 2014.
(CHARLOTTE HELSTON /InfoTel Multimedia)
“What we’re seeing quite often is if the addiction is too severe, people aren’t coming in because they can’t use in the shelter,” Fehr says. “With Kin Race Track, I know some people are there literally because they’re getting into fights… and as a result the shelters have to bar that person from coming in again.”
B.C. Housing recently created new low-income housing in Vernon, and while that’s great news, Fehr says it doesn’t help people struggling with severe mental health and addictions.
“Where we’re lacking is funded treatment, and funded supported housing for people with concurrent disorders. Until those things are done, we’ll have people on the street,” Fehr says.
It looks like those residing in the stables at Kin Race Track won’t be asked to leave any time soon. The city, which owns the property, says it’s up to the Okanagan Equestrian Society to take care of. The society leases the land from the city for horse racing activities, however that’s been in legal limbo for years ever since the city evicted them from the property in 2010.
Neither the city nor the equestrian society appear to have any plans of evicting the campers from the site any time soon.
(CHARLOTTE HELSTON /InfoTel Multimedia)
“On private or property leased or managed by a third party, it’s the responsibility of the property owner, the lessee, or the property manager to take the lead on addressing any of those issues, and in the case of any illegal issues for them to be the ones to contact the RCMP,” city communications officer Tanya Laing Gahr says.
But the society has no plans to evict anyone living in the stables. The society’s lawyer Ed Woolley says they aren’t using the stalls due to the legal negotiations with the city, and will have to renovate them in the future anyways. He adds there’s been no known damages to the barns.
“From our perspective it really doesn’t accomplish much for us to turf people out onto the street that have nowhere else to go,” Woolley says.
He adds it doesn’t make much sense for the city to "pass the puck onto us and say it has nothing to do with them" when they are trying to get the society removed from the property.
“If the city has some issues with that (homeless camp) because of liability aspects, we understand that it’s for the city to decide what they want to do,” Woolley says. “It’s a fairly sad situation and we’re not about to evict them out of there.”
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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2016