McDONALD: The people being trampled under policy in East Kelowna RV park


OPINION


It’s around noon when I drive up to a ramshackle RV park in East Kelowna. Nothing much is moving, even though it’s moving day.

It’s Nov. 1 and Kelowna’s agri-tourism bylaw says all recreational vehicles must be gone. But the motley collection of RVs sitting just off McCulloch Road in East Kelowna don’t look like they are going anywhere soon.

I’m here to tell Macen and Darlene and the other tenants that the word is the City of Kelowna has agreed to let them stay until the end of the month, that it wants to work with their landlord to help them relocate.

It’s deadsville in the park but there's a TV flickering in Darlene’s beat-up travel trailer so I call through the door. Darlene doesn’t much want to talk and says so, but then talks anyway, yelling through her closed trailer door about her looming eviction.

“There’s nothing to talk about. There’s nothing we can do about it anyway," she shouts. "We’re all adults here. We’re just going to have to find a place.”

When I ask if there are still plans for some of the park residents to get a house together, Darlene goes off about her dog.

“I’m not leaving her, if I have to get a hotel room, I will, but I’m not giving her up,” she declares defiantly, finally sticking her head out the RV door.

She’s not even dressed, she says, when I ask if she wants to talk about her future. I leave her and her dog alone.

Macen next door is living in what looks like an old Winnebago motor home, a big box of a thing abandoned by a previous tenant who could not afford to move it.

He’s still asleep, befuddled when I call his name and he needs another hour or so before he can talk.

“I guess I’m depressed about this,” he says. “I’ve been sleeping a lot.”

Macen agrees we should meet later for coffee and I leave him alone too.

I’m a little concerned that they both seem so unconcerned but then it occurs to me, living as precariously as they do for as long as they have, they no longer react to the possibility of homelessness the way others would.

Welcome to Frequency RV Park or Alpaca Vineyards RV Park or most often just "the park" as Macen and Darlene tell me when I first met them a week earlier.

Both descriptions are somewhat true — the boutique Frequency Winery and vineyard sits opposite the park while alpacas graze in long corrals going up the hill behind it, both are projects of landlord Calvin Kuipers, who has been working the 14-acre farm for more than 25 years.

This is wine and orchard country with vines and fruit trees hugging the gently rolling hills and estate-style homes perched wherever there is a view of Okanagan Lake.

Autumn has given the area a big splash of colour but has also left a trace of fog overnight in the marshy hollow where the trailer park sits on Gulley Road.

I’m here because my curiosity has been piqued by an item in the Kelowna council agenda about a low-income RV park. Inside is a letter from the Interior Health Authority, which is routinely asked to comment on the viability of certain kinds of development applications.

In the letter, in bold black letters, dietician Jill Worboys makes this observation: “If this application is denied, it would be important to work with the current tenants to find appropriate, affordable and safe housing options.”

I know Kelowna has recently embarked on the Journey Home, a program to combat homelessness in the city and has even hired social development coordinator to spearhead the drive.

My question now is “has the city considered the fate of these low income tenants in their zeal to stamp out illegal RV parks?”

It doesn’t feel like it to me and it's worth a drive to East Kelowna to find out.

When I first meet Darlene, she’s peering at me through the cracked tape-covered back window of her trailer while I snap a picture of the park. She comes out to meet me when I drive in. When I tell her Kelowna council will, that afternoon, decide the future of the park, it’s the first she’s heard of it.

She soon introduces me to her neighbour Macen Mansfield, an affable young man with dreadlock hair and a diagnosis of bi-polar syndrome or as he jokes “tri-polar disorder, because I’ll try any mental illness once, ba-dum-pa.”

Darlene is older with long, straight hair and the wary look of a woman who life might have pushed around some. Her brother lives in the trailer beside her. She’s been camping here since last January, doesn’t want her picture taken or her last name used but she readily opens up about her situation.

“I had to live in the bush for like three months, me and my dog, then I ended up in a trailer looking after a man before he passed away,” Darlene recounts. “He let me and my dog in for about three or four months then I came back here.”

Macen has been here since April, he says, after being kicked out of another RV park along with a friend who knew Kuipers.

“That’s how I got the connection to get in here. Before that I was living in my inherited dad’s Cadillac in like -30. It was brutal.”

They may be living in a pair of run-down RVs but both Macen and Darlene say they like it where they live, knowing intuitively it’s going to be tough to find accommodation anywhere else with the baggage they carry and the disability pensions they subsist on.

Macen acknowledges as much, saying he’s already been turned down for housing when the landlord found out he has a mental illness.

“That’s the lamest thing,” Darlene chimes in. “You’re one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. You’re awesome.”

While the City of Kelowna doesn’t have much use for him, both have nothing but nice things to say about Kuipers.

“He’s kind of like a folk hero around here,” Macen says, waving at the alpacas grazing nearby in the morning sun. “Calvin accommodates us. I don’t know if he has the proper permits for this place but it’s nice and quiet.”

Macen tells me he’s in the care of ACT, the assertive community treatment team run by the Interior Health Authority. The team works with clients "who have complex medical, psychiatric and social care needs who may have difficulty accessing mental health and substance use services.”

You wouldn’t know if from talking to Macen but ACT is for clients with “serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders that are complex and who have very significant functional impairments.”

To call his RV substandard would be charitable, but Macen says his ACT nurses know where he’s living, visiting frequently to ensure he takes his medications. I have my doubts, but he insists the broken down RV he lives in is good for his mental health.

“They come up here and look around and the say, jeezus, I could live here. All we’re missing is the swimming pool in the summer,” Macen says.

“Yeah, and maybe a lot more weed-eating,” Darlene cracks; growing more serious when I ask what she will do if the other shoe does drop.

“I honestly don’t know. I guess I’ll end up by the side of the road…."

Despite its tourism poster surroundings, no one is going to mistake the park for an upscale agri-tourism resort. Kuipers has operated it as an RV park since 2009 and has had on-and-off run-ins with Kelowna bylaw officers ever since over his refusal to stick to their rules.

When I first see Calvin Kuipers, he’s dressed like a farmer, overalls, baseball cap, big boots, sprawled out in the front row of council chambers in Kelowna City Hall.

He’s here to ask council to support his request to the Agricultural Land Commission to take his RV park out the land reserve so he can provide year-round RV accommodation to low-income tenants.

It’s a suicide mission, as Kuipers later says, and council quickly votes him down, making short work of him as the poster child for all that has gone wrong with a number of similar RV parks in Kelowna — what is supposed to be a place for a seasonal agri-tourism camping experience morphs into permanent housing for poor people clinging to the edges of the high-priced near-zero vacancy rental market in the Central Okanagan.

After council snubs him, the city’s rural planning manager Todd Cashin buttonholes him in the hallway outside, reminds him a court injunction is in the works and demands a meeting to work out the details for shutting down the park and removing the RVs.

Cashin is passionate about agricultural land and fights its abuse on many fronts on behalf of the city. He knows the media is watching but dresses him down anyway, telling me later that Kuipers is “hard to pin down” and uncooperative at the best of times.

“I have to get him where ever I can,” Cashin says.

When Cashin leaves, Kuipers muses out loud about ignoring the city and waiting it out for the injunction or maybe just towing some of the broken down RVs back at the farm to the parking spots in front of city hall.

“What do I have to lose?” he asks.

Later that day, Kuipers tells me over the phone that he knew all along council would turn him down but the money he made from the RV park in the last year and a half — about $3,000 a month — was worth the $1,500 he had to spend to make the application.

“It bought me some more time, that’s all it did,” Kuipers says. Mellowed some now, Kuipers is no longer talking of dumping his RVs on a city street and says he will comply with their request to shut it down.

His fate was sealed, Kuipers adds, when he agreed to a set of restrictive covenants in exchange for permission to open Frequency Winery, which is supposed to replace the income he will lose from the RV park.

The covenants were aimed squarely at getting compliance from Kuipers and the reason he is now facing a court injunction.

Kuipers knows full well the vulnerabilities of his tenants.

“Only two of them have jobs. One is a drywall taper and the other drives cab. You don’t make any money driving cab,” Kuipers says. “The rest are on some kind of disability or social assistance. These are not the most employable people you will meet."

Kuipers is in no danger of losing his farm, he says, even though the winery still can’t replace the income he will lose. His worry, he says, are the people who live there and he tells me he will no longer charge them rent, even if the city let’s them stay a little longer.

The next day I file the first of two stories about the RV park and the precarious situation of the people living there.

It’s a shot across the bows for everyone involved as I point out what seems obvious; these people are among society’s most vulnerable and are in danger of becoming further victimized, collateral damage in war they didn’t start.

Did my warning shot work? I’m not sure, but I know the city has since backed off its demand for instant eviction and has brought it to the attention of Sue Wheeler, the social development coordinator.

I know the health authority is aware of my interest in Macen and why a young man with serious mental illness would be allowed to live in an old motor home.

I also know winter is here, and the Dec. 1 eviction date is looming, so stay tuned.

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.


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