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Homeless encampments 101: The human cost

Posted August 31st, 2016

ride alone

Bylaw Community Peace Officers Share Knowledge on Encampment Sites — Written by Madison Smith, CHF Project Coordinator

The skies were clear the morning Bylaw Community Police Officers, Jody St. Pierre and Melanie Thomas graciously opened their vehicle doors for two “observers” to take a look into their daily encounters with homeless encampment sites and individuals who call the sites home. St. Pierre and Thomas make up the only bylaw team which canvass the entire City of Calgary and go by the name Partner Agency Liaison (PAL).

At 7:45 am, I was filling out liability waivers and eyeing the interesting black vest I would soon be sporting with the word OBSERVER clearly printed on the front and back. I had yet to know what exactly I was observing, but I knew I was in good hands. Nick Falvo, director of research and data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation, also accompanied us as an observer on this ‘ride along’.

Homeless encampments are often a result of individuals ‘falling through society’s cracks’. That phrase itself can sound rather cliché, but there are many cracks to fall through when people lack resiliency and access to resources to help them weather life’s ups and downs like our current economic times in Alberta.

Encampments are only one demeanor of the larger set of aspects that contribute to homelessness, street life, and social disorder. The transient nature of individuals pitching tents and tarps often raise issues in the environment, and surrounding community. Homeless encampments encompass diverse forms: tent cities; groups living under bridges, sleeping in parks, C-train stations, along CP Rail tracks, etc.

After a prolonged journey through Calgary’s thick morning traffic, the four of us arrived on the outskirts of an industrial neighbourhood in an overgrown pastoral field. We parked on a gravel road, Melanie Thomas noted the bike laying the grass parallel to the road. “I think Jake* is home!” she said as we followed the path. There was an abandoned and boarded up shed around the corner, and a small grouping of trees and bushes across the way. As we climbed through the branches we arrived at Jake’s ‘home’ which consisted of a large tent with three tarps draped around and above the area. There were bungee cords, plastic table and chairs, a recycling bin, and scrap metal in crates filling the entire camp site. St. Pierre and Thomas presented friendly greetings to Jake, consistent with the compassion I witnessed the PAL team greet all of their known high-functioning campers. Their philosophy and compassionate response is based on a belief that they offer ’a help-up, not a hand-out’.

They asked Jake how his day was going, and informed him that he needs to take down his home due to complaints received by Calgary Police Services. The land he was on did not belong to him. He was trespassing. The support and push for Jake to seek affordable housing options through the Downtown Outreach And Prevention (DOAP) Encampment Team were re-introduced, and he was reminded winter is coming. They handed him a card with resources he could call to help him find housing programs.

Jake was friendly, but politely declined the offer. He had preconceived notions that someone else would be in charge of his life if he was eligible for a housing program. He also only had a bike, and downtown appointments were a challenge to attend. Jake moves his camp regularly, with each move requiring over 30 trips back and forth via his bike. St. Pierre, Thomas, and Jake, mutually decide on a week for everything to be cleaned up. Before leaving, St. Pierre and Thomas asked if Jake needed anything, socks, supplies, coffee? Jake appreciated the thought, but said he was okay. As we left him it struck me that it probably would not be long before the PAL team came across Jake again. I knew they would continue to give him more encouragement to contact outreach teams.

The morning continued with visiting more known camp sites, and even discovering a few unknown. The PAL team saw each individual as a human being in a temporary homeless condition, and treated them with dignity and respect. Likewise, the individuals responded well to the refreshing encouragement to seek support and housing options. I tried to put myself in their shoes, imagining packing all my belongings/house and given just days to disperse and find a new shelter of some sort. The daunting nightmare for me was reality to most of the people we encountered.

Most individuals encountered have exhausted all resources available to them or their conditions (drug use, alcoholism, criminal record) hinder them from accessing available resources (shelters, for example). Others may have chosen the lifestyle because they tell themselves it frees them from competing in a consumerist society, or because it is better than previous living arrangements. However, most residents of homeless encampments say they would rather live in a more conventional routine with their own room and a job.

Homeless encampments impact the entire community. The individuals are subject to unhealthy encampment conditions, such as garbage, hoarding, diseases, and environmental hazards. Encampments also present victimization of the chronically homeless, many sleep with anxious panic that they will be in danger of theft or harm. Concerning the larger community, surrounding businesses fear criminal activity, threat to business viability, illegitimate use of public spaces, and lastly, but most importantly – the cost to society.

There are many costs associated with encampments with the financial burden taxpayers face to perform remedial efforts and the fear of crime most often cited as the most compelling challenges. Ultimately, it is the disheartening crumbling of these vulnerable people in our society and the loss of human potential that costs us the most.

Tuesday, August 30th, was memorable, educational, and extremely eye-opening. I want to thank Jody St. Pierre and Melanie Thomas for their admirable efforts to consistently push for success stories in every individual’s case. I am thankful they shared their knowledge and time with us. I am richer for the experience.

*Not his real name.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

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