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Vernon has done 'pretty much all we can' about latest homeless camp

Tents can be seen in a grove of trees off Highway 97 near Anderson Way in Vernon, on Friday, March 10, 2017.
March 14, 2017 - 4:30 PM

VERNON - Local agencies and the city have reached out to those camping in a grove of trees on Vernon's northend, but say there's not much more they can do.

The camp, which was active over the winter, is visible from Highway 97 near the overpass at Anderson Way. The city’s manager of protective services Clint Kanester says bylaw officers have visited the camp and provided some outreach, but because the property is on the Ministry of Transportation’s right of way, it is beyond the city’s jurisdiction.

“We’ve done pretty much all we can,” Kanester says.

While two large homeless camps were taken down by the city last year, it has no plans to decommission the one by the overpass.

In a written response, the Ministry of Transportation said it is aware of the encampment. 

"Staff have been working with the City of Vernon to relocate the individuals to a shelter. We will continue to work with law enforcement and the city to ensure the continued safety of the individuals and the travelling public," the ministry says. 

According to Kanester, this specific camp is not the only one the city is aware of. He says there are a number of other small camps throughout the city, and even spreading into more outlying areas in the regional district. With the weather warming up, he says more people are sleeping outside.

Space continues to be available at local shelters for anyone in need of a place to sleep, according to Kelly Fehr, with the John Howard Society. On average, there are four empty beds through the Extreme Weather Response Program, which provides up to 10 extra mats between Nov. 1 and March 31.

While space is available, Fehr says not everyone comes to the shelter, sometimes due to mental health or addictions issues, by choice, or because they are banned. The organization runs what’s called a ‘low barrier’ shelter, meaning there are fewer expectations for guests, however staff must balance accessibility with the safety of other residents.

“It’s a fine balance to ensure everyone stays safe,” Fehr says.

For those with complex mental health, substance use and behavioural challenges, and for whom a conventional shelter environment may not work, Fehr says supported housing is critical. While there is some supported housing offered in Vernon through the John Howard Society, Canadian Mental Health, the First Nations Friendship Centre and other organizations, Fehr says they tend to focus on either mental health or substance abuse.

“The challenge is for people who suffer greatly from more than one issue,” Fehr says. “That is a gap we have.”

He says individuals with severe concurrent disorders require environments that not only have more staff, but staff that have training in multiple disciplines. That level of supported housing is currently lacking in Vernon. 

When people choose not to go to a shelter, or can’t because they are banned, they end up ‘sleeping rough’ even in the wintertime, Fehr says.

“It’s very unsettling,” Fehr says. “Sleeping outside is never a safe choice. There’s risk of hypothermia, risk of assault.”

Going into spring and summer, the city’s bylaw department and the John Howard Society are both preparing for an upswing in the number of people camping outside.

“We’re fully expecting to see more people sleeping outside than in previous years,” Fehr says.

He attributes the increase in homelessness to a lack of affordable housing, low minimum wages and low income assistance rates.


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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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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