Homeless campers and children’s parks don’t mix in Vernon | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Vernon News

Homeless campers and children’s parks don’t mix in Vernon

The bike park in Vernon's Becker Park.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/City of Vernon

With more than 200 people sleeping rough in Vernon, city councillor Kari Gares would like them out of two city parks that are being upgraded.

“I did it with a very heavy heart,” she told iNFOnews.ca this week after she won support from her fellow council members to ban overnight camping in Becker Bike Park and Lakeview Park.

“Those two have been put on my radar because there is significant investment,” Gares said. “That’s where lots of children frequent and, quite honestly, probably not the best place for people to camp.”

Becker Bike Park, next to the curling rink and recreation centre, has three pump tracks but those are going to be expanded and improved next year at a cost of almost $1 million. 

“Becker Park is on the hillside,” Gares said. “For the last couple of years it’s been very, very dry. There has been lots of activity up there.

“Fire services have been up there as well and, because we’re making significant investment into that park, it makes logical sense for the safety of those that are camping there and, of course, the safety of the residents that live around there, that we prohibit the ability for overnight camping because, as weather starts to cool, there is an increased risk of fire activity.”

Bylaw officers respond to about 50 complaints a year at the park but Gares believes there are many more problems that don’t result in complaints.

"One of the biggest complaints that I’ve had over the last many years at Becker Park is that lots of families don’t want to bring their children up there," Gares said. "Its simply because of the type of activity they’re experiencing and they don’t want their children to experience it themselves."

She can’t say how many people camp there on a regular basis.

A Point in Time count was conducted last spring. Details have yet to be released but Gares has been told it’s likely around 240 who are sleeping rough, which is about the same as Kelowna.

READ MORE: Kamloops mayor pulls controversial idea to transport unhoused out of town

Municipalities have to allow people to camp overnight in parks if there are not enough indoor shelter spaces.

Vernon has about 60 parks but only bans overnight camping in six: Linear Park, Cenotaph Park, Spirit Square/Civic Grounds, Recreation Centre, Kal Tire Place/Kin Park and Civic Memorial Park.

Polson Park, which is the city’s main park at the intersection of Highway 97 and Highway 6, used to have a significant campsite on land owned by CN Rail.

“We had to wait for the railway to come in and clean it all up,” Gares said. “Then, of course, they did put in big boulders, strategically, so it’s much harder to create – I hate to use the word but – a tent city.”

The main camping area is still along the railway near the Highway 97 overpass on the north end of the city. That land is mostly under federal and provincial jurisdiction so there is little the city can do about it, Gares said.

READ MORE: Affordability log jam barring people from moving off the streets of Kelowna

The other park where overnight camping is going to be banned is Lakeview Park on along 18 Street between 30 and 32 Avenues. It was home to the hugely popular “peanut pool" which is in the process of being upgraded with completion expected in June 2024.

Lakeview Park in Vernon is popular with families.
Lakeview Park in Vernon is popular with families.

“It's unfortunate that there are so many people that are unhoused that have no other option than to live in parks and frequent parks,” Gares said. “It’s very tough.

“My reason for doing it was to protect the investments that we are making in those areas where we are trying to encourage more children to gather and congregate. The Becker Park one is just because of the conditions. The conditions are so severe that a simple fire from somebody trying to stay warm can have dire consequences for both that individual and for the neighbouring properties. It's too much of a risk for everybody involved.”

The ban still has to be put into the city’s parks bylaw so isn’t in effect yet.

And while it may seem to be a harsh approach to homelessness, Gares stressed that the city is working hard to provide the services needed and to work with BC Housing help create more homes.

“We’re all for making sure that we have those services, but we also want to make sure that those services are not being congregated in one particular neighbourhood,” Gares said.

“We’ve sent a letter to the ministry saying we want to work in partnership but we also want to make sure we’re at the table, because we are seeing some issues that melt into the neighbourhoods that are causing some unintended consequences. We need to find that balance of protecting those that are the most vulnerable in our community while also protecting our residents.”

— This story was updated at 2:27 p.m. Sept. 21, 2023, to correct the spelling of Kari Gares first name.

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