A pile of bikes, likely stolen, were found at a homeless camp between October and December 2017, in Red Deer. (Contributed)

Rough sleepers keep city staff busy even in winter

The cost of removing homeless camps discovered in remote natural areas in the city climbed 38 per cent last year.

Red Deer parks superintendent Trevor Poth, said in 2015 the rate jumped by 94 per cent.

“Whether it’s people are reporting them more, or that there’s more rough sleeper activity, we’re not aware. But it’s certainly for us an increased operational challenge,” said Poth on Tuesday.

Even during the winter staff are called out weekly to about five to eight camps. There’s plenty more in the summer, he said.

“We’ve had weeks as busy as 40 to 50 camps in a single week and we’ve had weeks as slow as five to six camps.”

In the winter more abandoned camps are found after people move indoors, and in the summer more of them just move their belongings to another camp once they are discovered, he said.

Last week city council approved one-time funding of $300,000 for 2018 and $200,000 for 2019 to be divided between the parks department for homeless camp cleanup, community policing for law enforcement of illegal camping, as well as public works for needle debris clean up around the city.

Departments originally asked for $200,000 per year and council increased the amount.

Poth said it’s the first time his department has received funding to tackle the issue. Surplus from other departments was used previously. Money for land reclamation is provided elsewhere in the capital budget.

In 2017 his department spent $130,000 on cleanup after peace officers issued 24-hour notices to homeless campers to leave and try and connect them to social services.

“Our goal is not to take things from people. It’s not meant to be a negative thing. It’s meant to be an opportunity to engage with the right organizations.”

He said rough sleepers are part of the much bigger social challenge of homelessness and addiction.

“With that in mind we’re trying to make it inconvenient for people to be in the parks because they’re such a valuable and important thing for the community and we want the community to feel safe when they’re out using our park system.”

He said most camps are reported by the public who go off asphalt trails while pursuing activities like mountain biking, orienteering, trail running, geocaching, and bird watching.

All natural areas in the city are prone to illegal campers, but parks used more often by the public, like Heritage Ranch and Bower Ponds, see less, he said.

Skid steers and other heavy equipment to haul away debris and materials to the landfill may be required when larger more established camps must be cleared away.

“For the most part all of that debris is thrown away. Our staff aren’t allowed to go through bags. They don’t do anything that will pose a safety risk to them especially with the risk of fentanyl and carfentanil these days.”

Personal items like wallets and purses are given to police for people to retrieve. Anything of value that may be stolen is also turned over to police.

“We’ve seen some interesting things like people with recycling bins and televisions and generators. That’s a reminder for us that people are very passionate about their home regardless of whether it’s a building home or a place that they’re living out in park.”


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