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Kelowna’s Tent City cleaned up as residents prepare for the winter

New fire-safe regulations implemented, without warming alternatives offered

Residents of the City of Kelowna-maintained homeless encampment called Tent City are currently preparing for the cold months ahead.

Bylaw services, police and large dump trucks travelled along the pathway through Kelowna’s Tent City to collect garbage, hand out new tents and give direction to residents in preparation for the winter.

Kelowna bylaw services Manager Kevin Mead spoke with Capital News at the encampment on Oct. 5.

In addition to a large-scale cleanup, new fire safety protocols were implemented by bylaw services, after consultation with the fire department.

The new rules include increased spacing between structures to prevent blazes from rapidly spreading and restrictions on the use of anything that may block or impede access to a tent in an emergency.

Tent City residents must ensure that emergency services have a clear sight and path to the entrance of their tent.

Additionally, bylaw officers reminded Tent City residents that they cannot have fire of any kind inside their tents, including stoves, candles and propane space heaters.

Mead said that the aim of the deep clean and reorganization of the site is to prepare residents who are sheltering outside for winter.

April, a resident of the encampment spoke to Capital News amidst the chaos of what she called a “much-needed” fall cleanup day. April said that initially, she was skeptical of the new rules but was relieved to see the changes in action as she feels they will help to keep people safe.

Specifically, she was happy that there must be 10 feet of separation between tents, adding that she has been trying to implement that safety measure since last year.

Last winter, April pulled multiple people out of burning tents and witnessed approximately nine tent-engulfing fires.

She also said that if the city installed non-flammable roofs at each designated tent site, people would not have to use tarps to cover their living areas to stay dry.

The blazes become an issue in the winter months when people sheltering outdoors take additional measures to stay warm and use candles, propane-powered heaters and stoves inside their tents. April explained that while people know that having fires inside a tent is dangerous, often the need to stay warm and stave off frostbite is greater than the risk posed by the flames.

She said that in the winter people wear multiple jackets, pants and socks, but often it is not enough, especially when clothing inevitably gets wet.

April explained that there is no way to dry clothes or blankets at Tent City when the weather is sub-zero and often people end up wearing wet clothing and boots for weeks at a time.

In addition to the need to stay warm, dehydration becomes a big issue for residents of Tent City in the winter without access to heat.

“Eating and drinking is actually quite difficult down here in the winter,” said April.

The encampment’s tap is turned off once temperatures drop and the plastic bottles that are given out to residents freeze solid in the cold.

Without a stove or heater, it is nearly impossible to prevent freezing and reheat water and food, said April.

She suggests that electrical outlets be installed at Tent City. April said that the outlets would enable people to use safe electric-powered space heaters and small appliances like kettles. There is currently no electricity available at Tent City.

Residents who shelter outdoors are encouraged to visit day sites and warm-up stations during the day to access food, water and sanitation. However, April explained that leaving your tent is often not a reasonable alternative.

The risk of theft is constant, said April. People routinely raid unoccupied tents, making every minute spent away from home base stressful.

Additionally, walking for more than a kilometre on snowy and ice-covered pathways is not a trivial task for many Tent City residents.

April explained that many people are physically disabled or have severe and untreated infections that restrict their ability to travel far distances.

Rene, a former Tent City resident has been experiencing un-sheltered homelessness for most of the past seven years. He is currently living in supportive housing but spends the majority of his time at Tent City visiting his friends and community.

Rene explained that due to injuries, his mobility is severely limited. He cannot walk to day sites and relies on his bike to travel around the city. When pathways are not shovelled and de-iced, he is unable to access the resources available to Kelowna’s unhoused population unless outreach workers come to him.

Mead said that over the past two years, the population of people experiencing homelessness in Kelowna has grown and approximately 150 people call Tent City home.

He said that shelter capacity and supportive housing availability have not grown with the surge in demand for resources. Shelters are currently nearly at capacity, said Mead.

Additionally, some people who live at Tent City or shelter outdoors around Kelowna do not want to be in a shelter while others are not welcome at the shelters in the city, explained April.

April said that some folks experiencing homelessness have experienced trauma or have personalities that make it difficult for them to abide by the rules and curfews imposed at shelters.

Mead said that bylaw services, the City of Kelowna, the RCMP and Interior Health are currently working to implement new cold-weather strategies to help people experiencing un-shelter homelessness.

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Jacqueline Gelineau

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