Bylaw officers removing people without homes from camp near downtown Kelowna
City official says campers have exploded over the past few months in the Rail Trail area of the city
Roderick Potts, 67, says he enjoys reading Larry Bond's Red Dragon Rising, his favourite fiction series, inside his tent on the Okanagan Rail Trail in downtown Kelowna's north end.
He says the calm environment of the city-designated homeless camping spot was worth his relocation from what he saw as the dangerous conditions around his single-room occupancy room on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
"This is my vacation [in Kelowna]," he told the CBC's Chris Walker last Thursday. "I was working down in Vancouver, and I just got sick and tired of it. The street people on Hastings … it was just too much."
But like dozens of other campers on Rail Trail, he has been under pressure since last week to leave the site, which the city's bylaw officers are trying to clean up in order to prevent it from growing into a tent city similar to the one on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside or CRAB Park.
Cleaning up homeless camps on Rail Trail
The removals, which are still continuing, aren't the Okanagan city's first attempt to quash a tent encampment. Three years ago, the RCMP forced homeless people out of Leon Avenue in the downtown core when a new nightclub there was about to open.
Last May, the city set up an "outdoor sheltering site" on Rail Trail where people in tents could sleep between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. every day.
The main purpose of the designated camping site, the city said, was to discourage people from camping in city parks and other public spaces, although the courts have ruled those who are homeless have a right to these sleeping arrangements.
On its website, the City of Kelowna says it will remove overnight camps from Rail Trail every day "to balance the rights of people experiencing homelessness with those of the broader community" and "to prevent the inherent risks to public health, safety and security that entrenched encampments present."
The city's community safety director, Darren Caul, says bylaw officers didn't really start removing Rail Trail campers until last week when their population exploded, becoming almost unmanageable.
"This month alone, we're averaging 170 who are visibly unhoused in our community," Caul said on CBC's Daybreak South.
"I say "visibly" because this by no means reflects the true number of people who are in a precarious housing situation — and the numbers are staggering."
Caul says Rail Trail campers rapidly increase when the temporary shelter on Doyle Avenue has been shut down and all the shelters are full.
A new shelter was built on Bay Avenue near Rail Trail to accommodate people who don't have homes, but it is operating at only half of its full capacity of 60 beds due to labour shortages at the shelter's operator, the Kelowna Gospel Mission.
Solutions to homelessness lie with the city: Dyas
Caul says the city will keep working with B.C. Housing to address housing affordability and addiction challenges and will listen to opinions from the new mayor and council.
During his election campaign, Kelowna mayor-elect Tom Dyas said solutions to homelessness lie with the city and not with other levels of government.
"What we need is strong leadership within our community to realize that this is a problem with our community and to make a difference and move the dial on homelessness within our community," he said in a debate with other mayoral candidates in late September.
CBC News has reached out to Dyas for comments but had not received a response by deadline.
With files from Chris Walker, Daybreak South and Brady Strachan