SLEEPING IN CARS: Kelowna's hidden homeless shelter - InfoNews

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SLEEPING IN CARS: Kelowna's hidden homeless shelter

Car camping in Kelowna.
April 13, 2018 - 6:30 PM

KELOWNA - No accurate measure can be made of the number of men, women and children sleeping in cars, vans and RVs in the city or the rural areas around it except to say it in the words of a man standing in front of the Kelowna Gospel Mission.

“They’re everywhere, man, except you just can’t see ‘em as good.”

Welcome to Kelowna’s hidden homeless shelter, although you might have trouble finding the front door.

Harder to pick out than, say, a shopping cart piled high with bottles, people sleeping rough in their cars and trucks have the ability to shift around, stopping overnight at different spots, avoiding potential complaints and a tap on the window from Kelowna bylaw.

And that’s the whole point, Inn from the Cold executive director Jan Shulz says.

Her traditional 40-bed shelter in downtown Kelowna deals mainly with those who are past living in their vans or trucks, but she knows the car campers are out there.

“The trouble with this segment, them along with the couch surfers, is they are very hard to quantify,” Shulz says. “They don’t want to be seen and they may not want to stay in the regular shelters.... Some might have jobs, enough to keep a car on the road but not enough to rent a place.”

That’s not the case with Green Van Guy, well known to Kelowna bylaw officers who say they have been chasing him around, moving him along for some time.

Green Van Guy is Derrick from Saskatchewan who lives in the van with his pregnant girlfriend and three cats. She’s from Kelowna but he’s new here, looking for work without much luck.

Derrick’s van is the only one sitting on Leon Avenue at 7 in the morning, but that doesn’t mean there’s not more just like him, he says.

“Just check the Wal-Mart parking lot,” he adds. “You’ll find them."

Shown a photograph of a truck at a local park piled high with belongings, Derrick doesn’t hesitate.

“I know her. She’s a hoarder. She sometimes comes here."

Unlike a lot of car campers, Derrick doesn’t shun downtown where bylaw and CCTV cameras keep close watch, but says he’s got almost $300 worth of parking tickets to show for it.

Derrick would love to tell his life story but doesn’t want to miss breakfast at the Mission.

“They give seconds,” he says, promising to meet later. He doesn’t show.

Bylaw services manager David Gazley says he has no record of a single ticket issued by his officers for someone found sleeping in their car although it was made illegal in 2016, at the same time the infamous sidewalk obstruction bylaw was introduced. A bylaw ticket is $250, if they decide to issue one. 

Gazley blames bylaw’s antiquated records keeping system for the only number he can produce: about 500 complaints since 2004 under the old traffic bylaw that included a range of prohibitions not just sleeping in cars.

Homeless or not, all street camping is illegal, Gazley points out, whether in a brand-new 36-foot Class A motorhome or a broken down old Volkswagen van.

“You’re not supposed to be camping on the street in a motorhome, you’re not supposed to be sleeping in your car or running a hook-up across the lawn,” he says.

While illegal, what gets their attention is a complaint and even then, Gazley says they are looking for compliance, not a chance to write a ticket.

“Our guys will usually say ‘hey buddy, are you okay, you have to move on’,” Gazley adds. “We will guide them to Wal-mart. Most people who are respectful know there is free camping there."

He’s well aware of Green Van Guy.

“There’s also a blue van guy and at one time a guy in a white van,” Gazley adds. “I don’t know his name but I know the guys are always checking and telling him you better plug that meter if you’re going to stay here."

Centre of Gravity summer festival probably produces the most complaints about car camping, Gazley says, with reports of tents pitched all over the place.

“We get a whole lot of calls but they’re young people, they’re not going to rent a hotel for the weekend,” he says.

But with young people comes the likelihood of drugs and with drugs comes fentanyl and Gazley says his officers are sometimes checking on their well-being, not looking for a traffic violation.

“They want to know if they are alive in there, because nowadays you never know.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email John McDonald 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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