Vernon Bylaw: Dealing with the harsh reality of those who have nowhere to live | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Vernon Bylaw: Dealing with the harsh reality of those who have nowhere to live

Vernon bylaw officers Candace Brandt and Justine Baumgart do their morning rounds in Polson Park
October 24, 2019 - 7:00 AM

Nestled around the back of the Priest Valley Arena, leaning against the wall next to the dumpster, a man sits on the ground drawing.

It's shortly before 8 a.m. and he's being paid a visit by City of Vernon Bylaw Officers.

"You're not sheltering, you're just painting?" the officer asks him.

"I'm just painting," he replies.

It may seem like a peculiar question but in the world of bylaw enforcement, it makes perfect sense.

Sheltering, which could take the form of a tent, a handmade structure or simply being completely covered by a blanket would break City bylaws, while simply sitting on the ground drawing does not.

Vernon bylaw officers Candace Brandt and Justine Baumgart are part of the department's Seasonal Enforcement Unit, dealing solely with the city's street entrenched population. Their trip to the back of the arena is the second stop of the day dealing with the street entrenched, and they've only been on the road for about five minutes.

They both know the gentleman drawing and decide to leave him be, even though he could be moved on as he's on public property.

"A lot of it is discretion," Baumgart says. "Normally we would (move him) but he's sitting there with his caligraphy behind the dumpster and he's had it pretty rough the last few days. If he had any kind of (drug) paraphernalia that we had seen, or quickly put something in his pocket, most times we would kick him out."

Officers Candace Brandt and Justine Baumgart move a homeless man from a doorway in Vernon.
Officers Candace Brandt and Justine Baumgart move a homeless man from a doorway in Vernon.

Baumgart and Brandt's day starts at 7:30 a.m. Their first task each morning is to head to the hotspots where homeless people set up camp and spend the night.

Less than two minutes from their downtown office, they stop the truck and head over to an office doorway where a person draped in sleeping bags is lying next to a shopping cart.

The man's name is Marshall, the officers know him, and he gets up slowly, still cocooned in sleeping bags and starts to move.

"We know the vast majority of people who sleep rough," Baumgart says.

However, the officers are seeing new faces arrive in Vernon, especially in the last month.

City of Vernon protective services manager Geoff Gaucher says bylaw officers and the RCMP report about five to 10 homeless people a week are arriving in Vernon from other areas.

"I believe they are coming from areas without services," Gaucher says. One person told him they'd left Golden as there are no services there.

The officers talk to a man sitting behind Preist Valley Arena.
The officers talk to a man sitting behind Preist Valley Arena.

As the weather gets colder they see fewer people sleeping in the park and more people gravitating to doorways where there is more shelter. Technically as a doorway is private and not public property, they have no jurisdiction, but they still ask people to move and the majority do.

The officers drive slowly down the city streets watching for people sleeping rough. Today will no doubt be a quiet morning, they say, as Oct. 23 is when the government issues income and disability assistance payments, tactlessly often referred to as 'welfare Wednesday.'

A lot of homeless people will have already moved from where they were sleeping and be waiting in line at the office that issues the cheques.

And they're right. Driving past the 28 Street office, a group of people stand outside. The officers say a lot of these people will have been sleeping rough.

As the clock ticks past 8:30 a.m. the officers head to Polson Park. Technically homeless people are allowed to camp in the park between dusk and 9 a.m. with exceptions. A tent pitched under a gazebo is one of those exceptions.

The officers head over and find Josiah wrapped in a blanket sleeping next to the tent under the gazebo. There are murmurs and voices coming from in the tent.

Josiah looks to be in his earlier twenties and is not happy about being moved. He starts shouting and swearing at the officers who remain calm. He's getting more and more agitated about having to move and continues swearing and shouting. He starts to walk off as a ticket starts to be written up for him.

"I saw his crack pipe and his tin foil in front of him, it's against our bylaws to have paraphernalia in the park whether you're using it or not," Baumgart says. "I can write him a ticket and I can ban him for 24 hours... if he has previous tickets then I can ban him for 90 days."

The ticket is for $100, or $90 if he pays within 30 days. Neither officer has any expectation he'll pay it but the ticket acts as a record to what happened.

Brandt bends down and lifts the tent's outer sheet and starts to talk to the woman sleeping inside.

"Don't you remember, we banned you," Brandt says to the woman in the tent.

The woman was banned from the park for 90 days almost three months ago and they haven't seen her since. She gets out of the tent and chats to the officers. She says she's got a busy day ahead of her and she'll be packed up soon.

The officers walk to the next tent.

"Morning, City of Vernon, who's that?" Baumgart asks.
Voices come from the tent and the officers know them and chat.

There's a couple in the tent and the woman is pregnant. They say they'll pack up soon.

Moments later Josiah walks back into the park and is clearly very angry.

"Stop stealing my stuff," he shouts.

Baumgart and Brandt talk calmly to him, but he's swearing profusely and shouting. 

He notices the camera and isn't happy about it.

"Don't fucking take pictures of me," he shouts as he aggressively moves towards the camera.

Luckily, Baumgart grabs a strap on his backpack and he's jerked backwards. Both officers block him from getting any closer. Shouts of voices from others in the tents tell him to calm down and leave. He does, shouting and swearing as he heads out of the park.

"We'll let (the RCMP) know he's on the loose and he's angry," Brandt says. "They know him well."

It was a brief but scary moment, and the officers dealt with it quickly and calmly, defusing a situation that appeared could have easily escalated.

However, the officers say that's not the norm.

"He's the exception, not the rule," says Baumgart. "Most people are compliant, most people want to just get along."

Tents in the morning at Polson Park.
Tents in the morning at Polson Park.

A further walkaround of the park and officers discover a homeless person's possessions. There's bags and camp chairs and a tarp. They know who's stuff it is. They issue a ticket, sticking it to a bag, it gives the owner one hour to return and collect their belongings. Often if a person doesn't return, the stuff will get stolen, leaving just the garbage which then has to be picked up.

The officers collect a discarded needle and a naloxone kit before getting back into the truck and heading to the next spot.

The job looks tough, and one that could quickly make a person angry.

"We like to go in with a relaxed attitude because you can always go in hot and it's hard to come down from hot," Baumgart says.

It also appears it wouldn't be hard to become disheartened.

"A lot of what we do is moving people from place to place. The police will kick them off private property and then maybe we'll have to deal with them... in a park and it's just a constant 'leave this place or leave that place' and they are getting really frustrated because there is nowhere to go, the shelters are full," Baumgart said.

The officers in Polson Park.
The officers in Polson Park.

While the officers both say they been called "horrible, horrible names" they greet the street entrenched like people greet their friends: Taking the time to talk and listen.

While the Seasonal Enforcement Unit normally comes to a close at the end of October, extra funding from council means they'll continue to do their rounds until Dec. 15.

They drive off, heading back to Polson Park to make sure the people who said they'd take their tents down have done so.

Then they'll come back tomorrow and do it all again. 

Officer Justine Baumgart places a ticket on belongings left in the park.
Officer Justine Baumgart places a ticket on belongings left in the park.

Bylaw Officers Candace Brandt and Justine Baumgart
Bylaw Officers Candace Brandt and Justine Baumgart

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer 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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