It is a perennial issue exacerbated in recent weeks by concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cathryn Olmstead, executive director of Smithers Community Services Association (SCSA), explained the situation last week in a memo to stakeholders, which included three levels of government, half a dozen community service organizations and a few local businesses.
The memo noted a growing encampment in downtown Smithers was creating a potential public hazard; that there were increasing complaints from the public about people congregating in parks and sleeping in bank machine vestibules and hotel stairways; that this particular population was unable to maintain physical distancing and self-isolation guidelines in accordance with provincial guidelines; and that government and service agencies have long been unsuccessful in finding them suitable housing.
Over the past week, a plan came together to relocate 8-10 persons from the town core to a temporary camp on the outskirts of Smithers.
SCSA coordinated the project and BC Housing provided funding for the construction of the camp.
The Town of Smithers provided the earth works, picnic tables, porta potties, a fire pit and firewood.
Dean Allen from Summit camps stepped up with free rental of the tents and beds and to build the camp. BV Electric installed the electrical connection.
On Wednesday afternoon, Davey coordinated the move, stressing it was not a forced relocation.
“It’s a voluntary thing,” Davey said. “We can’t order them to stay there, but given what their current situation was in the downtown core, we thought that if it [was] a significant measure that we would get buy-in from the population and they would agree to this.”
Daniel Johnny, one of the residents of the new camp, told The Interior News the group is grateful.
“I just want to say thank you to the city of Smithers,” he said. “Thank you for all your help and your support; thank you for everything, this is just how any outfitter would live.”
Olmstead said it is a proactive solution that addresses not only the on-going needs of the homeless community, but the concerns of the community at large in light of provincial physical distancing and self-isolation guidelines.
“When we help other people we help ourselves,” she said.
The camp is a collection of six tents (five residential and one for cooking) surrounding a central area with picnic tables and fire pit.
The residential tents are built on plywood bases, each with two beds, lighting and electric heat. Summit also provided a few tables and 10 chairs. SCSA supplied sleeping bags.
The cooking tent also has a wood floor and is equipped with a microwave, induction stove plate, and coffee maker.
There are two porta potties and a garbage bin at the entrance to the camp.
“It’s an awesome set up, I mean, you can’t get better than this,” Johnny said.
It is in a discrete location on Town of Smithers land where the residents can have some privacy.
Davey and Olmstead, along with Smithers Deputy Mayor Gladys Atrill, were all concerned there have already been people going by who couldn’t contain their curiosity and expressed hope the public would respect that privacy and leave them alone.
“We’d close the road if we could, but we can’t because the services need to get in,” Davey said.
Of course, a major concern is that, just like everybody else, this group of people need access to food, clothing, hygiene products and other supplies and services.
“Our hope is that they will stay there and we’ll bring services to them as opposed to them coming uptown and accessing those things,” Davey said.
This is where the social and health services organizations come into play.
Yesterday, the Salvation Army provided each of the tents with a food hamper and will deliver more every two weeks. They will also be continuing their bagged lunch and hot soup service Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. After having to close down their soup kitchen, they had previously been conducting that service out of their mobile community support unit on Main Street. Now, they will bring the truck to the camp.
Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Positive Living North (PLN) will be filling the food gap. PLN is also providing harm reduction services.
Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre will also provide some pre-made meals and will be supplying water, essential hygiene products, clothing, pre-paid phone cards and help with showers and laundry.
The Town’s contribution will have Davey checking in with the residents daily, helping with camp maintenance and the site will be included in the Town’s regular garbage collection cycle.
The Northern Health Outreach team is also in the loop to address health-specific concerns and needs of the camp residents.
The final piece of the puzzle is ongoing maintenance costs, such as electricity and dumping of the porta potties. Olmstead said Bulkley Valley Credit Union and the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechacko have already stepped up with some financial support, but she is currently looking for more donors.
A model for other communities?
All of this came together in just over a week from the time Davey and Candis Crump, manager of Goodacre Place for the SCSA, recognized the urgency of finding a solution.
Atrill said she is very pleased with how the project unfolded.
“I think this is a responsible move, it provides protection for a vulnerable group of people and creates some protection for them and other citizens in view of viral infection,” she said. “I am pretty proud of what people have done; I think it’s a really nice community story.”
Olmstead said it was amazing how it all came together so fast.
“It’s pretty impressive,” she said, noting it is also generating quite a bit of attention in other jurisdictions.
“One of the things that is quite exciting about this is it’s not happening anywhere else in the province to the extent of cooperation and collaboration,” she said. “It’s creating a lot of conversation, which is pretty cool.”
On Tuesday, the province announced it had secured hundreds of spots where homeless people could self-isolate in hotels, motels and community centres.
In the North, however, the only spaces are in Prince George and there are only seven of them.
Davey expressed hope this might prove a workable model for other communities during the COVID-19 crisis and maybe even be a viable long-term solution for a persistent need in Smithers.