Dallas Paulsen, who lives at the homeless camp in Nelson, says he has enough problems without people driving by and throwing rocks or worse.
“We’ve had bear bangers launched at us, and fireworks,” he says. “We’ve had cars full of kids throwing rocks as they drive by, yelling out the windows.”
Paulsen says diesel trucks drive up the road and, when passing the camp, blow their horns and rev their engines.
Lucy (which is not her real name, at her request) lives in the woods near the camp. She says it’s common to hear drivers screeching their tires in the middle of the night when she is trying to sleep.
“One night they came and tried to knock over the outhouse (a portable toilet provided by the city),” Lucy says.
But it’s not all bad, says Paulsen, because a few people are supportive, bringing pizza or sandwiches to the camp.
The encampment has been a fixture in the woods between Government Road and Highway 3A in the Kootenays town for several years, with a mix of tents, tarps, shopping carts, personal belongings, and large collections of bottles and cans.
Chris Johnson, the City of Nelson’s general manager of community planning, climate and infrastructure is the city’s point person on issues related to homelessness. He wants people to be more respectful of the people living on Government Road.
He reports contractors dumping their construction garbage there. Someone dropped off an old freezer one day, he says.
In September, the city moved a group of about eight people out of a sheltered area they were occupying on Edgewood Avenue across Cedar Street from the Scout Hall.
Johnson says there were complaints from the residential neighbours about trespassing, noise, theft, and drug dealing, as well as break-ins and drug paraphernalia at the Scout Hall.
Asked if it was illegal to live in that public area on Edgewood, Johnson says, “We didn’t explore the legality. What we were concerned with was, when people are tying criminal things back to that location and the people staying there, then that becomes a bigger issue.”
“We reluctantly moved people along,” Johnson adds, “understanding that there’s not really a lot of better options for them currently.”
Street outreach worker Jeremy Kelly says he and his colleagues helped the city with the eviction because the camp was not working for anyone. He said the occupants were given two weeks notice.
“Basically they were told they had to leave, and they understood that. They knew it wasn’t working … They just couldn’t abide by good neighbour policy. And the city turned a blind eye for a really long time … but it got out of hand.”
The street outreach workers told the Nelson Star that some of the campers from the Edgewood location may have moved to the Government Road location or to other locations in the city.
Winter shelter options
Where will people without homes in Nelson spend the winter?
There might be a limited number of beds at Stepping Stones, Kelly says, although many people are excluded from service there because of “various acts of either violence or vandalism or threatening behaviour toward staff.”
Nelson CARES executive director Jac Nobiss said her organization is in discussions with the Nelson Committee on Homelessness about shelter for homeless people in the coming winter, but location and staffing are two obstacles.
Another possibility is 12 emergency weather beds — sleeping mats on the floor with coffee in the morning — available between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., which last year were located at the St. Saviour’s Pro-Cathedral. Kelly says various agencies are now looking for a new location for those beds while faced with staffing shortages.
The Government Road camp is one possibility.
The city, assisted by the street outreach workers, have put considerable effort into that location over the summer, responding to fire risk, providing a toilet, collecting garbage, and doing the occasional cleanup.
Paulsen says he appreciates this, but said it has not always gone well. On one of the days the Nelson Star visited the camp, there was a heated discussion between Paulsen and a city worker who was there to prepare for a garbage pickup later in the day. Paulsen accused the city of taking things that were not garbage in a recent cleanup, including furniture. The city worker apologized and pointed out a specific area where the garbage should be placed so it could be identified as such.
The outreach workers returned to the camp later that day to assist with this process.
What the city actually wants, Johnson says, only the province can provide: housing, mental health support, addiction support, and recovery services, considering that most of the people living outside in Nelson are dealing with addiction and/or mental health issues.
He points out that the only two overdose prevention sites in the Kootenay-Boundary region are in Nelson. He wants to see a regional approach with various services spread across the region, not just one community.
Lucy says she has been homeless off and on for three years. She has a home in a rural community nearby, “but it’s really abusive. So I run away and come here. I’d rather be homeless than live at home. … I know a lot of girls who are in the same situation.”
She has a tent a short distance from the camp, in the forest, but often visits the camp to eat and socialize. She says she doesn’t like to live inside the camp “because of the mess” and because there is a lot of theft.
Living off to the side as she does, she says the people in the camp treat her well and she feels like it’s a community.
“There’s bad apples, of course. But you can sense which ones aren’t good to be around. And there’s a lot of drug use. I use drugs too, but I’m not on fentanyl. And it’s scary. For a lot of these people, I want to be around them to make sure that they don’t overdose.”
Paulsen agrees there is a sense of community but it only goes so far.
“At the same time, if they’re hurting and you have something shiny and expensive, chances are they’re going to take it because they need dope.”
Paulsen says almost everyone there does fentanyl, but he does crystal meth.
He thinks the city should provide housing and sanitation services for homeless people.
Lucy dismisses this idea, saying that until the residents clean up the camp themselves, no one will want to help them.
“The biggest beef I have is that it’s just destroyed, you know, there’s garbage everywhere. Joe Blow down the street, when he comes by, he’s not going to say, ‘Hey, let me help you.’ They’re not going to do that. Because they’re angry. Nelson is a beautiful community.”
Lucy has lived outside in the winter before and is prepared to do so again.
“The big one is staying dry and trying to keep warm, and not setting your tent on fire.”
Paulsen has lived in Nelson for 10 years and been homeless for three, and has lived at Government Road for a year.
He worked at two different coffee shops in the region, became homeless when COVID-19 shut everything down, and was never able to get back on his feet.
“I like to make an honest living, and every time I just get pushed down, knocked around. Nothing ever works out for me.”
Johnson says he grew up in Nelson and has known some of the people in the camps for much of his life. In his interview with the Nelson Star he often came back to his annoyance at the rock-throwing and other abuse by people driving by the Government Road site.
“Treat them with respect,” he says. “I can’t tell you how furious it makes me to hear some of that stuff that happens there.”