SLEEPING ROUGH: Kelowna cleaning up after more than 50 homeless campers - InfoNews

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SLEEPING ROUGH: Kelowna cleaning up after more than 50 homeless campers

July 15, 2019 - 6:00 PM

KELOWNA - Dan Maja has been chasing illegal campers out of Kelowna parks for 15 years.

The bylaw enforcement officer was hired specifically to clean up transient campsites and, along with one co-worker, he would fill up a van full of tents and tarps three or four times a day.

In the last three years, Kelowna has returned to that volume of people camping out.

“Our guys are busy,” Maja told as he counted stats from a recent morning.

“We had 54 rough sleepers overnight,” he said. “That seems to be a fairly steady number for the past month-and-a-half.”

While the numbers are lower in the winter, many choose to sleep outside year round rather than go into shelters.

“That’s one of our standard things,” Maja said. “We ask them why they’re not in a shelter? Do they know about the shelters? Are they aware of how to get into shelters? We ask them why they’re not in a shelter and they say ‘I’m not going in there, it stinks.’ Or: ‘It’s full of drug users and I’m an alcoholic.’ Occasionally we’ll find them saying they’re waiting to get in there or it was full last night.”

For the most part, the bylaw officers and the campers get to know each other and get along reasonably well as the officers do their morning rounds, getting them to pack up their tents.

“The ones we deal with on a fairly regular basis, we know them by name,” Maja said. “We know them by sight. Sometimes we know how they set up a tent so, as you approach a tent, you know who it is. Most of them are fairly regular and consistent.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t friction some mornings.

“Occasionally, depending on what their medication of choice is, sometimes they can get aggressive,” Maja noted. “We’re getting extra training to try to cope with those kinds of reactions.”

If needed, they will call in the RCMP to assist, as happened two years ago when a camper was actually shot through the shoulder and lung.

Police were cleared of any wrongdoing in that case but the victim claimed he was shot for no reason.

Maja has noticed a difference in the types of people sleeping rough.

When he started, there were people camping out after marital breakdowns or brain injuries. Now there are a lot more people suffering from mental health and addiction issues.

The other thing that has changed is where they’re camping.

“They’re less downtown and more spread out through the city,” Maja said. “Any green space they can find, they try to hide in. Sometimes it’s private property. Sometimes it’s our property. Sometimes it’s commercial property. Sometimes it’s industrial. Just wherever they can find a spot where they think they’re hidden.”

While they can be anywhere, the wilderness areas along the Rail Trail have been popular with such campers for years.

They usually have tents and tarps to cover their belongings. Staff have noticed the camps are bigger this year because the campers have accumulated more stuff over the past year but they’re usually in groups of two to four, not in big tent cities that have plagued cities like Victoria and Nanaimo.

If bylaw officers come across abandoned or vacant campsites, they will pack everything up and keep it in storage for up to 30 days. With a $40 impound fee, it’s not always picked up.

But, the last thing Maja wants to do is throw out treasured personal items.

“Every once in awhile, you’ll find a photo album of baby photos,” he said. “If it’s that person’s child, I don’t want to throw their photos out because, I know, I don’t want to lose my photos of my kids. Art books. People draw. People write poems. You want to keep those kinds of things and give them every opportunity to get things back.”

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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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2019
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