Petition to 'make Polson Park safe again' not getting support from elected officials | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Petition to 'make Polson Park safe again' not getting support from elected officials

This shelter could be seen from the boardwalk pathway in Polson Park June 7, 2017.
July 10, 2017 - 5:30 PM

VERNON - A petition calling on the government to “make Polson Park safe again” is falling flat with elected officials.

The petition, which had more than 1,000 signatures as of Monday morning, suggests either fencing off the boardwalk area of the park where homeless people are camped, or “(placing) them in an area that isn’t making the signature park a safety issue for children.”

The City of Vernon is moving towards a bylaw that would restrict campers from erecting shelters between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., but the petitioners anticipate difficulty enforcing those rules. The petition suggests that if law enforcement doesn't have the manpower to enforce the rules that individuals get bussed north of London Drugs. 

Both Vernon Mayor Akbal Mund and Vernon-Monashee MLA Eric Foster say they recognize people have concerns, but moving homeless people somewhere else is just not the answer.

“I don’t think that’s a solution for people who live on that side of town,” Mund says. “Moving them from one location to another is just moving the problem…. I don’t even know legally if we could do that — tell people ‘we’re taking you and moving you.’”

Mund reiterated that after visiting the park and the homeless camp he does not think the park is unsafe. 

"Social media blows it up," he says. "I didn't see anyone who looked harmful. They are all people looking for affordable housing who are down on their luck."

Neither the city nor the province has the grounds to evict campers completely from the park as the courts have ruled multiple times that homeless individuals have the right to camp when there's not enough shelter beds available. The most the municipality can do is enact a time restriction.

The mayor says that fencing off the boardwalk area where people are camped along Vernon Creek is also not likely to be considered by council.

“It’s a riparian area, we have no jurisdiction to do any work within 15 metres of the creek,” Mund says.

The 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. bylaw still needs to go through a final reading sometime in July, but once it goes into effect, Mund says the city will be upping enforcement to see that the new rules are followed by campers. However, he says they won’t be forced out immediately.

“We’ll say ‘hey you gotta pack up’. We’ll give them some time to comply. You’ve got to be fair,” Mund says. “We would do that with anyone not complying with a bylaw.”

While the petition was first aimed at City Hall, it has since been updated to name MLA Eric Foster as the recipient. Foster agrees with the mayor that moving people from the park is not a well thought out idea.

“The only solution they (petitioners) seem to have is moving them somewhere else. Moving people from one spot to another is not a solution,” Foster says. 

One recurring suggestion has been for the government to buy a piece of land out of downtown to be used as a designated tent city, but Foster doesn’t see that as a realistic solution.

“The folks in these camps, some of them work. They have to be close to downtown, to services. A lot go to the Mission for lunch,” he says. “The city owns several pieces of property as does the province but if we set them up as a homeless camp I don’t think people in that neighbourhood would want them either.”

The bottom line, Foster says, is that homeless individuals have a constitutional right to camp in parks.

“At the end of the day, there’s no crime being committed. Being homeless is not against the law,” Foster says.

The petition makes note of criminal activity in the park, stating: “It seems that every day, if somebody isn’t calling 911 because of a shooting or an overdose, there’s people getting high in the toilet stalls.”

Foster points out there has been no confirmation from the RCMP that a recent shooting incident had anything to do with the homeless camp and says assumptions like that could affect the credibility of the petition and whether it is accepted by his office.

“It does put a bit of a cloud over it,” he says.

Foster says any petition received by his office will be forwarded to the minister in charge — if it is “in the proper format.” Foster couldn’t say at this point if the Polson Park petition would meet the guidelines.

“That one is difficult. Usually a petition has an ask or a solution. I really have to study it and check with the clerk’s office,” he says.

Local agencies have frequently said that what Vernon needs is more affordable housing. Foster agrees. When asked specifically what he would like to see in terms of affordable housing initiatives, Foster referenced a tiny home project in Portland as the type of idea that should be considered.

“They (tiny homes) are the size of a bedroom, but it’s warm, it’s dry, it has electricity. They have washroom and shower facilities, not unlike a campground,” he says.

He said the government is in transition mode right now and doesn’t expect any announcements from the NDP until the cabinet is introduced.

He welcomes people to contact him with any ideas.

“Especially if someone has concrete solutions, that’s what we’re looking for,” he says.

You can phone his constituency office at 250-503-3600, email or fill out a feedback form online.

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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