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High profile Vernon homeless camp makes issues hard to ignore

Teresa Williams, 34, has been sleeping at Linear Park with her husband.
October 05, 2017 - 2:39 PM

"IT PUTS HOW BAD HOMELESSNESS IS RIGHT IN THE PUBLIC'S EYE"

VERNON - It’s a Tuesday afternoon and about 15 people are hanging out on the grass at Vernon’s Linear Park on 25 Avenue west of Polson Park. Some are curled up under blankets, others sit, heads bobbing, a look of numbness on their faces. Some drape sweaters over their laps to conceal the drugs they are taking. Discarded needles poke out from the grass next to the sidewalk.

This is the scene that has parked poverty, addiction and homelessness right on the side of a main thoroughfare, just steps from homes and downtown offices.

When approached for an interview, a couple of young people simply stare back, expressionless and unresponsive. One gestures at another group of people nearby. A woman, Teresa Williams, agrees to talk, but has to finish what she’s doing beneath the sweater in her lap first.

The 34-year-old is sleeping at Linear Park, along with her husband, because they are “being pushed out of where we’re staying” and can’t find anywhere else to go, she says.

“The cost of housing in Vernon is just astronomical. It’s stupid,” she says.

Williams says she suffers from depression, past trauma, a possible borderline personality disorder and addiction.

“Even though everyone’s got a different story, the main basis of those stories are pretty much the same, whether it’s some sort of abuse, or growing up on low income... A lot of us have never known what it’s like to live in our own home,” she says.

She’s lived in Vernon for 17 years and says if she could find an affordable place to rent, she wouldn’t be on the street.

 

Asked if people have reason to be concerned about walking through the homeless camp, Williams’ answer is two-fold.

“I want to say yes, but I want to say no,” she says. “Some people have actually been scared to actually walk down the pathway so they’re walking down the other side of the road and that is because (of) open drug use, people with the ‘I don’t care attitude’, violence, and stuff like that. And so yeah, in some ways, I can see their concerns for being scared… But on the flip side, if the community actually banded together and worked positively to try and clean this up again, or even if people would come talk to some of us and get to know the majority of us, most of us are on a fairly lower level. We’re not as violent as everybody thinks we are. Yeah, we have a lot of anger and animosity built up in us, but what do you expect? We’re basically being fed to the dogs.”

She says people have driven by the park yelling ‘get a job’ or ‘get a house." 

“Some of that some of us bring on ourselves. There’s the odd person that stays down here that's... been given so much negative attitude towards them, they’re starting to throw it back in other people’s faces to the point where it’s ‘if nobody wants to care about me, why the hell should I care about them?” she says.

Throughout the interview, Williams comes back to the shortage of affordable housing in Vernon, pointing out the low-income Blair Apartments is already full with a long waiting list, and that there are far more developments for seniors housing than for the homeless.

She also says Vernon needs a safe use site for drugs, similar to what Kelowna and Kamloops recently rolled out. Without it, she says drug use will continue to occur openly.

DRUG USE, ILLICIT ACTIVITY, PUBLIC DEFECATION GENERATING CONCERNS

The sudden growth of this particular homeless camp — there are others — follows recent bylaw changes and the clean-up of a camp in Polson Park. The camp, and some of the activities it brings with it, are creating new challenges for an office building directly beside it. The People Place — a community centre that houses numerous non-profit organizations like the Alzheimer Society, Family Resource Centre Society, and Mental Illness Family Support Centre — is raising concerns about public safety.

Lisa Kongsdorf, an employability manager at Independent Living Vernon in the People Place, says both employees and clients are becoming worried about their safety as the camp grows. She says the office has seen illicit activity around the 27 Avenue building in the past, but the scale right now is unprecedented — leading staff to call police once or twice a day.

“We’ve never seen anything this daunting where you have people sleeping and putting up tents outside your building and urinating and defecating on the ground,” Kongsdorf says. “We see people shooting needles right in direct site, selling drugs. We see all the effects of this, and at the same time, we recognize these are human beings, they all have a story. I don’t know what got them here, and it’s not for me to judge. But it’s not the place for this to be happening.”

Independent Living provides support for people with disabilities and Kongsdorf says they have a lot of empathy for the people sleeping in Linear Park.

“What these people need is supportive and affordable housing,” she says.

On average, she estimates there are about 25 to 40 people staying at the camp. Individuals take their tents down during the daytime, which means they are adhering to the city’s bylaws.

Elaine Collison, the general manager of the People Place, says the camp has had a significant impact on operations.

“We’ve had a number of groups in Vernon that have phoned to cancel their meeting rooms because they don’t feel safe,” Collison says. “A woman came in here with her young daughter saying she just witnessed someone with a needle in their arm.”

Elaine Collison, general manager of the People Place, holds a sharps container full of discarded needles picked up from around the building.
Elaine Collison, general manager of the People Place, holds a sharps container full of discarded needles picked up from around the building.

Like other staff, Collison has taken it upon herself to pick up and safely dispose of discarded needles around the building. On Tuesday alone, she picked up roughly 25 needles.

The People Place is now looking at measures such as no trespassing signs, fencing and a paid security guard. They’ve already added additional video surveillance cameras.

“This is going to detract from services being provided here for sure,” she says. “It’s really unfortunate dollars have to go here and not where this building was intended.”

Collison says they’ve been in touch with the City of Vernon to discuss improvements such as additional garbage cans and clean up of the area.

“This is a community issue. It’s not a People Place issue — it’s just that it’s landed here,” she says.

KINDNESS GOES A LONG WAY

Despite the negative comments hurled at them by passersby, Williams says many residents have shown kindness as well, including drop-offs of food, clothing and bedding, and one woman who even delivered a tent for a man who didn’t have one.

She understands the concerns being raised by community members, and hopes something good will come of the Linear Park camp.

“It puts how bad homelessness is right in the public’s eye,” she says.

Read past stories about homelessness in Vernon here. 


To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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