Dirty needles, human feces and piles of garbage litter the makeshift homesites that are becoming an increasing problem in the region.
Crews from the Penticton Indian Band (PIB) natural resources and lands department and City of Penticton have been busy arranging clean up of a couple of the more recently- occupied sites.
After several days work, Marvin Jack, Devin Armstrong and others had barely touched the debris which has accumulated in a small, hidden treed area on the west side of Highway 97, across from the Redwing Resort residential property at the north entrance to the city.
“When we first got here there was a camp here and a big tent over there,” said Jack motioning towards the hill. “There was garbage and stuff but it wasn’t so messy but the guy (living there) came back after we left and you could tell he was in a rage because everything was everywhere. Wouldn’t be so bad if they were clean because we’ve come across clean camps but these guys were filthy they got shit all up the hill they even were throwing the bags in trees.
“Looked like they’d been here a couple of years because all this stuff was brought in on their backs. We didn’t even find one shopping cart.”
Just about every imaginable item could be found in the layers of water-soaked debris on site, including; coolers, roller blades, bags of spoiled food, bicycles parts and even a large steamer trunk under a plastic tarp.
According to PIB communications co-ordinator Dawn Russell complaints about the property began coming in to the band office and appearing on social media late last fall.
“It’s the bio-hazards, like the needles and the feces that are the biggest problem,” said Russell who estimates as many as 20 such campsites have been dealt with on PIB lands in the past year.
“This makeshift housing is contaminating the soil and it becomes a serious hazard for the general public, it becomes a risk to the wildlife in the area. 4There’s 25 red and blue-listed endangered species in that area.
“This is not a new problem, it is a growing problem. We didn’t have nearly this many that we’re having to contend with in such close succession”
Heavy equipment will eventually be moved onto the site to clean it out before rehabilitation work begins.
She added the PIB takes responsibility for the problem on the reserve and this particular property is under the guardianship of a locatee owner.
“The landowner was requesting help to reduce risk to the public and general safety and then we went from there,” said Russell. “The landowner also initiated support for them (camp’s occupants) because it’s not our intention to victimize the vulnerable but in this case we think this might have almost been a lifestyle choice.”
There were conflicting reports about how many people were living there ranging from one to five, although it is believed a single male started the camp which continued to grow.
“When I said it was a palace … you think of a homeless person or somebody who is in a vulnerable situation trying to create shelter for themselves from the elements, well this was above and beyond,” said Russell.
Eventually the RCMP did intervene at the band’s request and a notice to vacate was issued and complied with. In addition to police, PIB works with the Ministry of Environment.
According to Russell, practices in dealing with those camping illegally is much different now compared to the past when the squatters were simply moved out with minimal cleanup work done afterwards.
“Now when we’re doing habitat restoration we have to remove the contaminated soil, you just can’t let it sit there,” she said. “It becomes a hazard for the general public it becomes a risk to the wildlife in the area.”
There is also the very real danger to the people, like Jack and Armstrong, who are working in the area.
“Now our people have specialized training for this kind of work, but not only in bio-hazards but also in archeological finds,” said Russell.
The next issue, once the camps have been taken down and the area cleaned, is keeping people from moving back in.
“We have limited crew but with the crew we do have we do regular patrols and as well, wildlife cameras are installed in areas that are frequented by transients as well where people are dumping,” said Russell.
Meanwhile, the City of Penticton recently arranged for the cleanup of the some of the area of the Esplanade Trails Network, also known as Hobo Trails, recently.
The area has long been a popular camping spot for transient workers and others. It’s located between Vancouver Hill, Marina Way and the Kettle Valley Railway North.
“We tidied up a bunch of the camps earlier this week, it was a mess, tents odds and ends, clothes, just pure litter, you name it,” said Len Robson, the city’s public works manager. “It appears to be (worsening) we’re getting more frequency of it and it seems a bit early and it seems a bit more than the usual.”
There was added concern about the illegal camping there after a fire in late August of last year believed to have been caused by a camp fire which got out of control, burning a couple of acres of the property.
Other popular illegal camping sites include the Rose Garden near Okanagan Lake and sections of shoreline along the Okanagan River Channel.