Peace officers clean up a rough sleeper camp in Red Deer in May. (Contributed image).

Red Deer parks workers are cleaning up double the number of homeless camps as last year

Is the problem getting worse, or are more people now reporting these camps?

City of Red Deer parks workers are busy cleaning up needle debris, propane tanks and tarps from twice as many homeless encampments as were reported in the first half of last year.

Parks supervisor Trevor Poth admits there’s been a big increase in makeshift camps that are being discovered in out-of-the-way wooded areas, such as tree belts between neighbourhoods.

Of the 149 rough sleeper camps that were reported to the city by June 30, parks workers have so far managed to clean up 144 of them.

This is a significant jump from when 70 camps were reported in the first half of 2018, and city workers had cleaned up 53 by the end of June.

Poth said his department has been ramping up efforts. Between nine and a dozen employees are spending one day a week picking up whatever’s left behind by the campers.

“They take what they want and we pick up the rest,” said Poth, referring to used needles and other hazards.

Although the numbers suggest a growing homelessness problem in the city, Poth isn’t sure if there are more people sleeping in the woods — or if the same people are creating multiple camps, and the public is now more familiar with reporting them.

Poth said there are indications some displaced campers are not taking up offers of help by housing agencies. Instead, they are relocating to sleep elsewhere in the parks system.

Poth added these new camps are eventually taken down by peace officers, and the debris again is cleaned up by city parks workers.

He’s not sure what the answer is to this ongoing issue. Poth said the opioid crisis and the state of Alberta’s economy are likely contributing factors, but he doesn’t know to what extent.

In January, city council added an extra $200,000 toward cleaning up needle debris and rough sleeper camps in parks — in addition to $200,000 that was previously approved.

The city’s 2018 homelessness count found 144 people in need of accommodation. Most were staying in shelters or in transitional or government housing. But 19 people were considered “unsheltered” or were sleeping outdoors.

This was a lower number than found in a 2016 homelessness count. It showed 149 people needed accommodations (a nearly nine per cent increase from 2014) and 37 people were unsheltered.

As the homelessness count is done every second year, the 2019 numbers remain unknown.

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