British Columbia

'Nowhere really to go': face of homelessness in Vernon, B.C.

As the City of Vernon bans camping in a local park effective Feb. 2018 and new shelter beds are made available, one homeless man shares his personal experience.

City struggles with growing homeless population, new 24-hour shelter beds now open

Trent Jobin is one of dozens of people now living on the street in Vernon, B.C., regularly camping in a local park. (Chris Walker/ CBC)

As the North Okanagan city of Vernon, B.C. copes with a growing homeless population and moves to ban camping in a local park, one man living in that park appeals for more understanding and sympathy from residents.

Until last month, 47-year-old Trent Jobin had a wife, a home and a job, but is now among the people who sleep in a high-profile, sometimes violent homeless camp in Vernon's Linear Park.

"Just one thing after another. Got evicted," said Jobin.

He and his wife then stayed in their van outside her family's home, but Jobin, a longtime drug user, had a relapse.

"So they kicked me out and here I am."

Low vacancy rate, shortage of shelter space

"I just came off eight years of recovery being straight ... and it all came apart in a matter of a month. Look where I am. How fast everything is going."

Like many B.C. cities, Vernon has struggled with an extremely low-vacancy rate coupled with a shortage of shelter beds. 

The most recent census conducted by the local John Howard Society found 153 people identified as homeless, with more than 40 regularly sleeping outside.

While there are two shelters in the city, there is not always space and they do not provide services for people coping with addiction every day.

The province has promised 2,000 modular supportive housing units for communities around B.C. but so far Vernon is not on the list.

"There was nowhere really to go," said Jobin.

Vernon City Council has responded to public concern about safety by banning camping in Linear Park effective February 2018.

Overnight camping is allowed in nearby Polson Park, but campers must vacate by 9 a.m. PT.

Jobin described local politicians as "heartless" and said the violence and drug use are merely symptoms of a lack of services.

'So many people have died'

Added to the challenging situation, is the rise of fentanyl on local streets.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has found the Okanagan has one of the highest rates of illicit drug overdose deaths in all of B.C.

Interior Health recently presented this chart to Kelowna City Council showing the high number of drug overdose deaths in the Okanagan. (Interior Health/ City of Kelowna)

"So many people have died. They tell you it's got [fentanyl] in there. You can take it if you want," said Jobin.

"There are times I've been in so much pain that I take it."

Local social services workers are responding in any way that they can, including by adding 24-hour shelter beds starting this month funded by B.C. Housing.

"There is still going to be a gap, but I think we'll see a significant decrease [in that gap] with these services coming," said Kelly Fehr, co-executive director with the John Howard Society of the North Okanagan.

Fehr said shelter users are not required to be sober, the goal is to find more people a warm place to spend the night.

"This is a big plus for our community and the citizens that need the service."

'Got to change our attitudes'

Resident and former teacher Dawn Tucker regularly attends council meetings to track the city's progress on the issue.

She says many of her former students and friends are homeless, and see the hard work of the city and non-profits overwhelmed by need.

"The argument that the city doesn't do anything, isn't one that holds water. People are very dedicated in the system trying to get people off the streets."

Resident Dawn Tucker speaks to a homeless man near downtown Vernon. (Chris Walker/ CBC)

She said residents need to donate, volunteer and "look after our neighbours and our homeless."

"I think when we're apathetic ...  that's when problems start," said Tucker.

Jobin, sleeping in the park as temperatures dip below freezing, agrees what is needed most is a shift in perspective.

"We all got to do it together. We all got to change our attitudes."

With files from CBC's Daybreak South.