The Town of Osoyoos is setting up a committee to look at the issue of homelessness after community members presented the topic to council earlier this month.
The community advocacy group Osoyoos Gift Cupboard presented at the Nov. 6 committee of the whole meeting, explaining some of the work they have done with homeless in the community.
“We helped families in tragic situations regain their foundation, and we also made sure no one froze over the last very cold winter,” the group wrote in a letter to council. “We went under the bridge, into the remote areas, under bushes and down lane ways. There were 11 sleeping bags handed out with no questions asked.”
On top of that, the group said they helped out with hot soup and sandwiches, while a local restaurant offered a hot meal for homeless people who came to the restaurant with a code word.
“That worked out very well. We provided hats, mitts, gloves, warm socks and jackets to many, not just our street people,” the group wrote.
But beyond all of that, the group said their major concern right now is a local man named Vince, whose last name was not provided.
“He is our town project. Everyone knows who he is and can see plainly he is deteriorating rather quickly,” they wrote. “His health is not great and, yes, he is suffering from long-term alcohol effects.”
The group said they were looking to find a spot for Vince to set up his tent and a tarp without fear of his things being stolen, and asked that the township provide that piece of land.
“A place where everyone knows, so we as a community can care for our own,” the letter reads. “It is not our intent to set a precedent with other homeless people here in town. We want to ensure that Vince has a place that is his and that his stuff will, perhaps, not get stolen.”
But following Monday’s council meeting, when staff presented some options for the township to consider on the topic of homelessness, Mayor Sue McKortoff said there wasn’t appetite in town hall to provide that space, due to the wide array of responsibilities the city would then be faced with.
“You can’t legally say ‘here,’ because then you take the responsibility of maintaining it, of having Interior Health involved with toilets and washroom facilities, and who’s going to pay taxes on that?” she said.
“It can’t be done and just hand somebody a piece of property when everybody else has to pay taxes and so on, on their own properties.”
McKortoff added Vince has “had all kinds of options” for living indoors over the years, having grown up in town, but said it was ultimately his choice to live outside.
“He’s well-fed, he gets meals from people in the community, he is very well looked after by many, many volunteers in this community, and it’s his choice to put his tent up,” she said.
“We, in fact, have told him that he is certainly able to put his tent up down at the Gyro Park, the cafe in there, there’s kind of a covered area. But he has to remove his things from seven in the morning until seven at night.”
But McKortoff said the issue goes beyond Vince, and so the town has decided to look at the homeless issue as a whole at the committee level.
“We’re going to have town staff and council and community representatives get together a committee and look at what the issue is, how can it be dealt with, what can the community do. But it cannot just be the town saying ‘here’s a piece of property for free and you can camp here and we’ll protect you,’ that isn’t possible,” she said.
McKortoff wasn’t sure how many more homeless individuals may be living in Osoyoos, but that is part of what the committee would likely look at.
“There may be one or two more (homeless), but we don’t really know for sure, and it’s not something that people come up and say ‘I’m homeless, you need to help me,’” she said.
Because the committee is still just a concept, McKortoff said it wasn’t clear how many people would be taking part in the process.
“We’re waiting to see if there might be a group that might like to take this on, such as a service group, such as a church. We’re just not quite sure.”