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Making Kelowna’s homeless camp more liveable

Homeless camper Gary Baker posed for a photo, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, with the bags of clean blankets that volunteers have washed for those living in tents off Recreation Avenue.
December 10, 2019 - 4:00 PM

As the group of homeless people sleeping in tents in Kelowna’s North End enter their second week in the cold, they welcome the support of the volunteers helping them cope with a rather unpleasant 'home' life.

The campers were moved from the sidewalks on Leon Avenue in downtown Kelowna on Nov. 26 to the infield of a ball diamond behind Kelowna Curling Club on Recreation Avenue. They can’t set up their tents until 7 p.m. and are expected to have them packed and stored by 9 a.m. the next morning.

Last night, Dec. 9, the setting up procedure started around 6 p.m. as Lynn (a bylaw officer who would not give her last name) and some of the campers wheeled large recycling bins full of tents and bedding out of the warming tent to the far corners of the fenced camping area.

“We just like to get the warming tent set up so when (the campers) arrive, they’ve got a warm place to go to,” Lynn said.

Inside the tent were three or four bikes locked together, a number of bins and a pile of bags filled with blankets and quilts.

“This is all washed,” Gary Baker, one of the leaders among the campers, told “Shilo (one of a dozen or more volunteers who help out at the camp) came and washed it all for us. We rotate it. You put your blanket in there and you’re guaranteed a blanket when you come back at night - not necessarily the same one but a clean one.”

It’s the type of system the campers used when they were living on Leon Avenue and are just getting back to now that they’ve settled into their new home.

One camper comes into the warming tent, throws down a mat and lays under a sleeping bag, a lit cigarette in his mouth. Someone notifies bylaw so Lynn, and a couple of other officers, order him to put it out. He refuses.

“Come on, put it out for now,” Gary says to the camper. “Let’s not have a day like your other one.”

The cigarette is put out so the bylaw officers leave.

“He’s really a nice guy,” Gary calls out. “He’s probably had a real bad day.”

While the bins and tarps are hauled out early, the campers aren’t allowed to actually start setting up until 7 p.m.

In the meantime, Tammie Watson, the interim executive director of the Central Okanagan Food Bank arrives with cases of bottled water and boxes of sandwiches, salads and veggies. The campers stand back until it’s set up then line up to select something to eat.

For liability reasons, the food bank can’t provide homemade goods, like hot soup. That often comes later in the evening, brought by volunteers.

There has been some concern about volunteers bringing not only food but supplies like tents, blankets, toques and mitts but by this time in the camp’s life, bylaw officers are pretty lenient on that front.

A group of volunteers did a fundraising drive and raised enough to buy 10 tents and a couple of big orange tarps.

Were the tents really needed?

“Oh ya,” Baker said. “Bylaw took them all. Every time someone would go in the washroom they would take a tent. It was bad. It was getting out of control here.”

Dan, another bylaw officer who did not want to give his last name, disagreed.

“The only tents we got rid of are ones that got slashed or damaged and they don’t want them,” he said. “So, yes, tents do go in the back of the (garbage) truck but they’re damaged. They get a new one and they tell us to just throw that one out because it’s no good.”

A recent video by one of the campers showed tool boxes, tents and bedding being tossed into a trailer to be hauled to the dump.

Dan said the material had been sorted and deemed to be garbage. The tools, for example, were rusted and broken, not worth putting in storage.

Anything that is abandoned and deemed of value is put in long-term storage for 30 days where it can be reclaimed by the owner. If it’s in a wheeled bin, it will have the owner’s name on it.

While there is technically a $40 fee to reclaim such material, Dan said it’s rarely paid by those who can’t afford to pay.

He, too, had praise for the volunteers who are helping with laundry, sorting and storing tents and bedding and helping set up and take down the camp each day.

“The people that come down are very helpful,” Baker said, adding that some of the campers are “learning to understand.” They’ve had so much of their worldly goods stolen while they’ve been homeless that they have trouble trusting anyone but they’re learning not to get hostile just because someone tries to help.

Baker said there are five to 10 volunteers each night, mostly a core group but often with new faces showing up.

What has become a familiar routine may change next week when 40 emergency shelter beds open up.

Dan estimated there are 40 to 50 people sleeping at the camp. Baker put the number as high as 60 staying some nights and said another 60 are camped way out in the bush. They just come in for supplies so it remains to be seen what will be needed as new shelter beds open.

For his part, Baker says he started the camp on Leon Avenue and will be the last to go inside, even if it does get to 40 below.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 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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