When temperatures plunged below zero in Kelowna earlier this month, concerns about the people tenting at Recreation Avenue were heightened.
The needs weren’t clear — beyond a proper indoor shelter with supports — and the only ones in charge were City of Kelowna bylaws and local law enforcement and it isn’t their job to support the homeless tenters.
Shilo Ashbury just went to work tackling at least one big problem. She rented a trailer to haul away the bedding at the Recreation Avenue tent city in Kelowna earlier this week. They get dirty and wet and without anyone to clean them, they were destined for a garbage bin.
“I’m a compassionate person,” Ashbury told iNFOnews.ca. “I know what it’s like when someone is down on their luck and just needs a helping hand. I have been there and I don’t know what I would have done if somebody hadn’t stepped in and helped me. I know that despair.”
She is one of roughly a dozen volunteers who have been spending mornings and nights offering assistance where they can in the absence of any formal society or organization, including finding or even offering accommodations directly. Ashbury owns a local business but is spending many hours at the encampment where some 50 people are living as they wait for spaces to open in shelters.
She says there are only seven to 12 tents set up each night with others sleeping in a large warming tent.
Campers have to take their tents down each morning and can’t put them up until 7 p.m. Given current weather conditions, they are stored wet and have to be put up wet.
On Monday, Dec. 9, Ashbury rented a U-Haul trailer and took bedding off to be washed, bringing it back as “beds in a bag” with each bag containing a clean pillow and blankets.
Kristel Ritchie saw much the same thing when she tried to bring the tenters food. She found chaos and bizarre rules that needed to change.
“I went down there on Friday night (Dec. 6) and I was told I was not allowed in,” she said. “A bylaw officer accosted me and heckled me for trying to give them food. I got really, really angry and made myself a promise that I would come back every day.”
The volunteers there managed to convince bylaw to allow people to bring food, although without any way to warm it or keep it warm. Soon others were asking if they could help. Realizing that required some organization, she created an online “meal train” where people can sign up to bring warm food to the campers.
The aim is to be there by 7:30 every night with dinner served at 8 p.m. Since the first couple of nights, Ritchie hasn’t had to prepare the food herself as other people like the former Chamber of Commerce president Tom Dyas and local chef Kyle Taylor have brought meals.
Food is also provided by the Central Okanagan Food Bank with things like fruit, salads, sandwiches, and muffins but they can’t bring in home made goods because of health and safety regulations.
Volunteers also raised enough money to buy 10 tents and some tarps even though the city said, initially, that donations of food and bedding should only be handled through agencies.
Ritchie says she’s doing this because she comes from a history of homelessness, with both her father and grandfather spending years on the street. She was also homeless herself for a time when she was younger.
It was similar with Ashbury. Her father suffered from mental illness so she’s familiar with the mental health system and has been helping people cope with that system for years.
She’s now trying to find spots in shelters for the campers, to advocate for them and help them navigate the social services network.
There is a core group of about 10 volunteers – mostly women — who are down at the camp evenings and mornings helping take down and set up the tents, provide food and doing laundry.
Ritchie said they’ve not been very consistent at getting coffee to the campers in the morning because many of them are mothers who have to drop their children off at school. Today, by the time she got there with some oatmeal, all the campers were gone.
Despite the two to three weeks the volunteers have put in so far, they’re not slowing down. Like Ritchie, many of them are frustrated by what they see as resistance to their efforts by the city.
“They’re firing us up,” Ashbury said. “We are of strong mind. We all can be pushed to an emotional level to where we’re going to get freaky. We’re going to rage.”
It may not come to that as the camp will start winding down next week as spaces become available in shelters with the opening of Fuller Place.
But, that may not be the end of Recreation Avenue camp because there may not be enough spaces for everyone and some of the homeless tenters have said they’ll refuse to go into shelters.
Until then, people like Ritchie are prepared to keep the meal train going.
Anyone wanting to join the meal train may notice that there are no openings for Christmas Day, Ritchie said. That’s because the volunteers have booked a space to provide a private Christmas dinner for this group of campers – and any of their friends they want to invite.
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