Last month a homeless camp in Nelson's Railtown area was dismantled. Crews had to bring in heavy machinery to clean up the area.

Pastor proposes campground for homeless community

Community brainstorming homelessness strategies after Railtown encampment dismantling.

Pastor Jim Reimer has introduced a proposal to improve the homelessness problem in Nelson by procuring a designated piece of land and using it as a temporary campground for transients.

This comes on the heels of the dismantling of the Railtown homeless camp last month, and the release of the Annual Report on Homelessness by the Nelson Council on Homelessness in June.

“What strikes me about this is there’s no solution being offered,” Reimer told the Star during an interview last month. “So you evict them from one camp. They’re just going to go somewhere else. Where are they supposed to go?”

In an open letter addressed to Mayor John Dooley, Police Chief Wayne Holland and a number of other authorities in Nelson, Reimer summarized his plan as follows:

“1. Secure a piece of land outside of city limits.

2. Designate a defined area as a backpacker’s campground.

3. Develop a sanitation station, i.e. outhouse.

4. Establish a garbage bin and regular pickup.

5. Establish a clean water source, i.e. well.

6. Hire a campground supervisor.

7. Secure funding through the Columbia Basin Trust or some other agency.”

Reimer said he believes this proposition falls perfectly into the mandate of the Columbia Basin Trust, as that money is earmarked for basin residents.

“Most of the people using outdoor camping year-round are locals with multiple barriers,” he said. “They too need our help.”

Reimer said he realizes the plan would take a considerable amount of work, and may be less than perfect, but he welcomed any contributions or suggestions.

“I am fully aware that much would have to be fleshed out, but if we take a proactive approach we can make a real difference for the entire community,” he said.

Reactions to the plan have been mixed. While many praise Reimer’s intentions, others have questions about the feasibility of such a plan. Some have compared the idea to the farm workers’ camps that have been set up in Keremeos and Oliver.

In a letter to the Star’s sister paper the Keremeos Review former local Farmworkers Campground Society chair Doe Gregoire outlined what had been learned from establishing and running the camp for the past two seasons.

“It created a place for those undesirables (one who are not workers) to come up to the camp and set up their own camp within the camp. These individuals were found to be disruptive and aggressive within the camp,” she wrote.

Furthermore, once “established the campsite was turned into a party destination with people coming in from all over the Okanagan, leaving the porta potties filled to the brim and extra garbage in and around the dumpsters… all to be dealt with by the meagre funds available.”

This is exactly the issue that gives Nelson & District Chamber of Commerce executive director Tom Thomson pause.

“Essentially, people find out about the camp before they even get to Nelson,” he said. “We’re an attractive community, obviously. If you were choosing a location to be homeless, you might go hitchhiking until you end up in a place like this. But do we have the infrastructure to take care of everybody?” he asked.

He also wondered whether Nelson should be forced to serve those from elsewhere.

“Should it be a municipal responsibility to host camp transients potentially from all over Canada?” he asked.

Currently, the transient population is putting such stress on local services such as Our Daily Bread that they’ve been barely able to continue their services for homeless locals, Thomson said, and they’ve had to institute a small fee for warm meals.

Nelson Police Chief Wayne Holland said he was skeptical of Reimer’s plan. In particular, he wanted to know how organizers planned to distinguish those in distress from the voluntary residents who flock into the area for music festivals.

“We have two sides of the coin to address when we’re dealing with this,” he said.

Holland said the police are “hopeful to be part of the solution”, but if the campground is located on Crown Land they’ll have no jurisdiction or involvement.

“We want to be there to help and be a voice in the resolution,” he said. “I think [Reimer’s} idea is laudable, but I have more questions than answers at this point.”

City councillor Donna Macdonald also expressed reservations about the plan, though she agreed something has to be done to address the growing issue.

“I’d like to see some models and examples of where this has worked in other communities,” she said. She seconded Holland’s observation about the distinction between the authentically homeless and temporary visitors.

“It’s the whole one size doesn’t fit all thing,” she said. She said in principle she wasn’t against the Occupy movement’s encampment on city hall last year, but it created a number of issues and concerns (including women’s safety) that weren’t anticipated.

“It’s not a simple thing to create a campsite and say ‘here you go’,” she said.

Macdonald said the homelessness issue is too complex for a municipal government to tackle on its own.

“Across the country we’re seeing a growing problem with homelessness. I’m talking about the genuinely homeless. This is spilling out on to our streets and into our parks and on to our land. The federal government in particular, and the provincial government as well, they’ve walked away from the problem.”

Macdonald said she appreciates Reimer’s work in the community, but doesn’t think his plan will succeed.

“We support the good work he is doing. Our Daily Bread is a really important facility in our community and he’s a very enthusiastic person. Who knows? Jim seems to gets things done, much to other people’s surprise.”

However, she said, the solution will have to come through collaboration with a number of agencies in town. Thomson agreed.

“We need to find a longer term solution,” he said.

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