The County of Red Deer is advising residents on how to deal with homeless people camping on their property.

A notice on the county's website says there's been a significant increase in complaints, and the problem is connected to a so-called tent city that was torn down in 2015.

There was justification for dismantling the tent city. Those involved said more than 30 kilograms of drug paraphernalia, including needles, were cleaned up.

That wasn't the main safety concern though. The camp was located in a small wooded area between the north and south lanes of the QEII, a dangerous highway to cross on foot.

According to the county, the "displaced persons" who were forced from the camp only seemed to scatter to other nearby areas, and now officials are dealing with the aftermath.

"It's a significantly increased number of calls from landowners from within Red Deer County complaining about, if you want to call them, displaced persons taking up residency on their property," said Irv Heide, senior peace officer with Red Deer County protective services. 

According to Heide, the homeless often stick to sheltered areas in the trees but they bring a lot of things with them.

Needles found on property

"It's limited to your imagination, whether it's blankets, tarps, food wrappers or propane tanks," said Heide, who adds that they're also finding a lot of needles.

"So the purpose of the [notice] was to give our landowners some insight, because we're getting a lot of calls of 'What can we do?' " 

Heide admits it's a difficult issue. "There's no easy fix."

He should know, prior to taking on his current role Heide was an Alberta RCMP officer for nearly 30 years. 

"There's a really good percentage of these displaced persons who are addicted to drugs and alcohol — that's another issue in itself," said Heide. "With addictions come spinoff crimes."

In the notice, landowners are encouraged to maintain property boundaries, put up "No trespassing" signs and to report anyone camping on their land. They're also told they're responsible for cleaning up any garbage, and if charges are laid, they must be willing to attend court.

"We're limited to what we can do," Heide said. "If it results in a fine, is that person even going to go to court? Is that person going to pay that fine? And that's a question that's hard to answer, and if they truly are displaced and don't have an income, your guess is as good as mine."

Fines won't solve problem

Tricia Haggarty-Roberts with the Central Alberta Safe Harbour Society doesn't think fines are the best approach to the issue.

"We need to stop criminalizing individuals for living in poverty or not having a place to stay.

"If you and I want to go and have a drink, we're going to go home and have a drink. If I don't have a residence I'm going to be drinking outside, and so now I'm going to be penalized for that whether my behaviour needed to be penalized or not." 

Haggarty-Roberts believes part of the problem is a lack of resources. 

"Red Deer has the lowest shelter spaces per capita in the province ... we have 46 spaces for the sober shelter and 26 spaces for the intoxicated shelter. And those are significantly lower than anywhere else in the province, certainly for a community of our size.

"We're still cramming 46 people into a space that was designed for 12. So absolutely, this is an area that needs to be improved upon."

The sooner the better. With the weak economy in Alberta, Haggarty-Roberts believes poverty is increasing.

Homeless numbers increasing

"We've seen a lot of new faces in our programs that we had never seen before, and what we are hearing is that some of those folks have hit down times. And when you don't have a family or friends to support you in those tough times, yeah, you're finding yourself homeless."

Nonetheless, Haggarty-Roberts has no issue with the county's notice and agrees with the decision to tear down the tent city, given it's dangerous location on the median of Highway 2.

But there are some county residents who believe these new issues wouldn't have surfaced had the "tent city" and its residents been left alone on the island in the middle of the busy QEII or if the effort had been put towards helping those living there.

In a Facebook post Cody Applegarth writes: "I was the closest neighbour to this and I told the county staff in a phone call what they did was not right. Destroy trees and property and greenspace. How much did it cost the county to do this as opposed to how much it would of cost to help anyone out there?

"And now you wonder why complaints are coming in? People have to live somewhere and even in down economic times, they will find a place to call home."