On a hot near-summer day, Penticton bylaw officers stumble upon a wayward tool bathing in the sun.
A rusty saw with a $4 sticker on the blade sits unattended on the ledge of the water fountain in Nanaimo Square, at the corner of Nanaimo Avenue and Main Street. Deeming it a safety issue, bylaw officer Richard Thom picks it up and carries on.
The saw-sighting comes just minutes into a Wednesday afternoon tour of the upper downtown area and waterfront, as part of new patrol duties the City of Penticton’s bylaw department is undertaking. Those patrols are part of a larger plan from the city and the Downtown Penticton Association to try to clean up the downtown area.
A graphic on a poster outside the bylaw department in city hall describes the strategy, which incorporates a variety of partners, including provincial, municipal and non-profit.
The plan is part of the crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) strategy to deterring unwanted behaviours. That includes identifying problematic areas and using things like downtown lighting, thinning tree canopy and regular patrols of “problem areas” by RCMP, community policing and bylaw.
“Our downtown foot patrol team patrols throughout the laneways, the parks, the beaches, the trails, public washrooms. All of our city public spaces, and we want to make sure throughout these patrols that we’re being visible and we’re responding to any public concerns that there might be,” Siebert said.
“Anything related to safety, security, cleanliness. Those are all our goals, and we want to make sure we’re on top of dealing with any issues. So if the officers come across anything throughout their patrols, what they’ll do is record it, take a photo and make sure it’s dealt with right away.”
For now, the focus for the patrols is the downtown core through the summer season.
“The priority is the summer when it is quite busy and there are lots of visitors. If it is successful and we have a lot of good measurables, which we will, then we would like to continue it throughout the year,” said Siebert.
They’ve only been patrolling for a few weeks, but Siebert said they’ve already been getting results coming across a number of incidents that bylaw wouldn’t normally see, like getting someone the medical help they needed.
“We’ve come across some illegal tree-cutting that was completely unsafe, about a month back now,” said Siebert. “Being visible is very important. When we come across something, we want to make sure it gets addressed and dealt with right away.”
It also includes disposing of used needles and calling for garbage collection or graffiti cleaning, following the principle that when things like graffiti or garbage go undealt with, more of the same follows.
Bylaw will also come across issues like public drinking or substance use.
“Basically, we want to make sure the general public has access to all of our city facilities, so our walkways, our parks, our beaches, our public washrooms, just so that everyone can use the facilities as they should. And any issues that we come across, we want to make sure that it is cleaned right away,” Siebert said.
Bylaw officers carry a resource guide prepared by 100 Homes Penticton, filled with phone numbers and addresses for a variety of services, including shelters, addictions resources, food resources and emergency lines.
“That way they can get the help that they need as quickly as possible,” Siebert said.
“We want to make sure that everyone’s safe, and if there are any issues, mental health and addictions or otherwise, we want to at first make sure they’re not in a critical distress type of a situation, so getting them access to emergency services if they need it.”
Siebert said one of the main focuses is to “keep people moving; we don’t really want people to have permanent locations, because then we run into further issues down the road.”
In their Wednesday afternoon patrol, bylaw ran into a few different groups, whom officers stopped to talk with, asked to clean up after themselves and not stay too long, before continuing on their way.
In other instances, bylaw officers came across unattended or hidden shopping carts or other vessels for homeless individuals’ belongings. If those items were still at that location upon return, they would leave a notice for the individual to move it.
That included a homeless encampment under a bridge, the residents of which would have braved an almost jungle gym-like climb to get into. There, no campers, but a number of items were stored, including sleeping bags and other personal effects.
A note would be left at that location, too.
Panhandler Paul Braun, who is currently in a legal battle with the city, said he hears from a number of people bylaw patrols encounter. Braun said those hauling shopping carts around feel harassed when bylaw officers come across them.
“I call it their mobile homes, the shopping carts. I know the city probably calls it theft, because they’ve got somebody’s property, the shopping cart,” Braun said.
“You’ve got to haul it around with you. How do you haul it around? Not on your back. You can’t stash it somewhere, because somebody will steal it.”
Lawyer Anna Cooper with Pivot Legal Society said in a statement last month that the homeless “are constantly moved along. There is always another police or bylaw officer or angry business owner telling them that they cannot stop here.”
Cooper called it “constant displacement,” and said it is “physically exhausting, even for a young, healthy person.”
But Siebert said the action was a matter of safety for the rest of the community, as well as allowing the general public to use all of the city’s amenities.
“Obviously everyone has their own issues that they’re working through, and a lot of times we’re coming across those types of situations and those types of people. But at the heart of it, we all want to be treated with respect and fairness, and obviously that’s a core value that we follow,” Siebert said.
“We also have to balance that heart and that hammer, and that’s a very difficult job. But understanding these people want to be treated with respect, just like we do, and helping them to get the services and supports that they need in the community is a goal for us.”
— With files from Steve Kidd/Western News