Homeless camps still a reality in Vernon parks

A makeshift shelter of tarps and sleeping bags found in a public park in Vernon in February 2014.

VERNON - With nowhere else to turn, members of the homeless community continue to sleep in public parks in Vernon. 

A census done in October found six active homeless camps in the city, executive director for the Social Planning Council of the North Okanagan Annette Sharkey says.

“That is up from previous counts, but not as big of a jump as we had feared with the closing of the Green Valley Motel,” Sharkey says.

The first homeless count in 2009 revealed 30 homeless camps in the city, but that’s fallen to between three and five over the past few years in large part due to a unique partnership between outreach workers and the city’s bylaw department.

“Whenever a camp is found, either bylaw notifies our outreach workers or vice versa. They make sure contact is made with the campers so they can provide assistance,” Sharkey says.

The six camps counted this October are all located in public park spaces and are relatively small, typically with only a handful of individuals set up at each camp. If camps are small and not posing any health or safety issues, they are generally left alone.

“If a camp becomes really large with a lot of people congregating, or if there’s a huge mess associated with the camp or things there that are a health hazard — needles and that kind of thing — that’s when bylaw looks at decommissioning the camp,” Sharkey says.

A recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling sided with an Abbotsford homeless community and struck down the municipality’s attempt to ban people from camping on parkland. In his 81-page decision, the judge said homeless people are allowed to erect temporary shelters in parkland between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. due to a lack of accessible shelter space in the city.

Vernon also faces a shortage of affordable, accessibly housing, and that means we will continue to see homeless camps in the city, Sharkey says.

“Our community has done a really good job of bringing people inside but camps will still be a reality,” Sharkey says.

The census is conducted twice a year in the spring and fall and Sharkey says they’ll be keeping a close eye on the numbers, especially since the number of camps has climbed slightly.

“At this point it’s a wait and see, we’re going to make sure we keep a handle on what’s happening and can respond if there is a change,” she says.

To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at chelston@infonews.ca or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

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