As rain-laden clouds hung threateningly in the sky Thursday morning, restoration crews began work cleaning up Esplanade Park.
That afternoon, as the rain broke out, drenching the small, forested area beside the marina on Okanagan Lake, Karen Haynes and Terry Gabelhei were packing their things.
They are just two of around 12 people who had made a home out of the forested area, according to Haynes. For them, the cleanup spelled trouble.
Haynes, 60, has been homeless since last fall for the first time in her life. She said her life began to spiral after her husband — “Mr. Reliable,” she called him with a pause to fight back her tears — died of heart failure four years after he retired from a 41-year career in warehouse work.
|A number of people living in Esplanade Park above the marina on Okanagan Lake were handed these notices this week, which they believe was effectively an eviction notice.
Dustin Godfrey/Western News
Gabelhei, in her 50s, said she had been well-to-do until fibromyalgia had forced her into an early retirement.
In a life that offers little stability elsewhere, as the two newly homeless women have come to learn, they said their campsite is that one rock for them to lean on.
But last week, Haynes showed the Western News what she views as effectively an eviction notice. A bylaw warning outlined a Park Regulation Bylaw infraction and said all camping equipment must be removed or it would be removed for them.
Haynes and Gabelhei said they feel they’re being pushed into the more open downtown area, where the realities of homelessness become all the more harsh. As the rain soaked their campsite last week, Haynes said women on the streets have more to fear than the elements.
“The things we’ve been exposed to, you don’t want to mention.”
The canopy offers some shelter, but even that brings little security. Things regularly get stolen from campsites — one man said his photo album of his kids was stolen from him.
Another man said his vision in one eye is blurry but recovering after someone recently entered his tent and fired an automatic BB gun at him while he slept. He said he was hit several times, including in the eye.
Police confirmed they received reports of the incident but have no suspects identified.
Currently, bylaw prohibits setting up temporary shelters such as tents in parks, with a $75 fine attached.
Keremeos, Oliver and Summerland all prohibit the practice. Osoyoos appears to be the only municipality in the region that permits homeless individuals to set up temporary shelter overnight, but it must be taken down by 7 a.m.
To the north, Kelowna similarly prohibits temporary shelters in parks, while Vernon allows overnight camping with similar timing to Osoyoos.
But the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in a 2008 Victoria case banning overnight camping in public parks is a charter violation.
“In communities with insufficient and inadequate shelter for their citizens, bylaws prohibiting all overnight camping violate the Charter because, quite simply, they are increasing the chance their homeless citizens will die,” said Anna Cooper, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, which has played a role in the court fight for tent cities in the Lower Mainland.
City of Penticton bylaw supervisor Tina Siebert said the city is looking to update its bylaw to reflect the ruling, and in practice they have an unofficial policy permitting camping from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.
“There’s no right to occupy a public space for an indefinite period of time,” Siebert said, adding the notices handed out in Esplanade Park were largely in response to growing complaints of garbage in the area.
But Haynes and Gabelhei feel like they’re being forced out of their makeshift home, which they’ve recently worked to clean up.
The pair said being forced to pack up all of their things every day would only add to the instability in their lives, and remove their peer network around them.
“I’m sure that is very challenging, and we’re trying to consider all of that, and we’re trying to balance the heart and the hammer,” Siebert said. “We’re also trying to make sure it doesn’t get so dirty and unsightly that nobody wants to come to a certain area of a city either, so it’s about finding that balance.”
But Cooper said that daily displacement is beyond challenging — it’s damaging to the homeless who have to to pack up their life every day, who are “constantly moved along” by police, bylaw officers and business owners.
“I challenge anyone to load all their worldly possessions into a shopping cart and push it everywhere they go for a week. It is physically exhausting, even for a young, healthy person, and many of our homeless are seniors and people with disabilities,” Cooper said, adding it increases risks of violence.
“Every homeless person I have spoken with has a story of being physically attacked simply for existing in public space. People don’t just hurl nasty words, they throw objects out of their cars, burn tents, and literally kick homeless people when they are down.”
By Monday, Gabelhei said some individuals had packed up and left Esplanade Park. One group has opted to sleep under bridges, but Gabelhei expressed concern for their safety, with the creeks running as high as they are.
Calling themselves “partners in crime,” the duo said they may have found an opening for a more permanent home. But that is its own challenge; Haynes notes the difficulties of finding space with B.C. Housing and little else is affordable in the city.
Cooper said cities “in the immediate future” should work to ensure a 24/7 space is provided for homeless people to, as the B.C. Supreme Court put it, “sleep, rest, shelter, stay warm, eat, wash and attend to personal hygiene.”
“Cities also need to exercise their powers in a way that respects human rights. Cities are often the gatekeepers to housing projects, they have the power to grant rezoning applications and development permits,” Cooper said. “They need to be exercising these powers with the interests of their most vulnerable constituents in mind.”
However, on Tuesday Penticton city council voted down a supportive housing project from B.C. Housing, telling staff to head back to the drawing board for a new plan.
Following the evening meeting, asked whether there would be appetite to allow homeless camps in Esplanade Park to stay while they await housing, Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said that, or other solutions, would likely have to be a third-party initiative.
When bylaw officers do take down things like tents, Siebert said they are often kept in the city’s storage. But the notice handed to Haynes and Gabelhei explicitly stated items left behind “will be discarded into the trash.”
“We have no idea where we’re going to take this stuff, where we’re going to stay,” Haynes said.
Siebert said bylaw identifies places where homeless are sleeping for outreach services that provide things like harm reduction kits and hygiene supplies.
Haynes said getting that assistance has been a personal boost since she landed on the streets. But she fears they won’t be accessible to outreach if they leave the park.
“You get lost for a while. Lost in the shuffle, again, for a while.”