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Homelessness on the rise in Vernon

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Vernon sees rise in homelessness – Oct 20, 2017

Many Vernon area residents and businesses have complained about the number of people living in parks and sleeping on streets.

Now a new survey has confirmed those numbers are up and the impacts are being felt far beyond the city’s homeless camps.

A count conducted this week found 153 homeless people in Vernon, up by nine from last year. And the number of homeless who can’t find any shelter is also up.

“There is 44 people that slept outside last night and that is a travesty. That shouldn’t be happening in Canada,” said Kelly Fehr, an executive director with the John Howard Society of the North Okanagan.

Two major causes of homelessness are the high cost of housing and low vacancy rates.

The growing street population is affecting the general public. Vicki Eide has owned a businesses in downtown Vernon for 26 years and is dismayed by what she’s seeing.

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“This year our usual transient situation has escalated out of proportion,” Eide said.

“People are defecating wherever they want. They are aggressive. They are threatening people. They are just abusive.”

The tailor shop owner said the trend is hurting business, her customers are scared and her profits are dropping. She has circulated a petition and asked city hall for action.

“Enforce the bylaws that we do have. We need more enforcement, more police,” said Eide.

However, Vernon’s mayor doesn’t believe the city can enforce its way out of this problem.

“If I arrested you today for something minor, you’re going to be back on the street two hours later. That’s common place it is not like we can sweep this problem under the rug,” said Mayor Akbal Mund.

“Enforcement works to a small degree. The real issue is housing.”

As Vernon grapples with an increase in its homeless population, it has looked to the province for help with housing. However, so far, there haven’t been any firm commitments from Victoria.

Vernon will have 23 temporary cold weather shelter spaces starting in November, but that’s not enough to help the 44 people sleeping outside.

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Both city council and nonprofits believe more supported housing would help immensely.

“We would be able to bring people in from the outside, give them a chance to stabilize and then kind of move on with their lives as they have more programming and more supports. It is not actually a complicated issue there [are] very straightforward solutions,” said Annette Sharkey, executive director for the Social Planning Council for the North Okanagan.

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

However, BC Housing said it considering all options with the city, including modular and supportive units.

Meanwhile, some argue that aggression and dangerous behaviour has more to do with drug addiction than homelessness.

“The drugs that are out there right now are volatile,” said Sharkey.

She believes Canada should put methadone programs in place along with safe consumption sites, and consider decriminalizing drugs.

“If we force people into a place where they have to beg, borrow and steal we are going to see crime,” said Sharkey.

Vernon council is expected to hear further details about the homeless count on Monday. Eide is also scheduled to present her concerns to council that day.

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