Is the homelessness situation in the city core getting better or worse?
Good luck finding anyone who thinks it’s better now than it was last year or the year before. While more money and more efforts have been made, there seems to be little to show for it.
Every morning for the city’s downtown bylaw compliance staff and police officers appears to be exactly the same – breaking up small camps, moving people along and picking up the waste left behind.
Surely there are more meetings and public consultations ahead, where business owners and leaders, law enforcement, politicians and social advocates will share their frustrations, urge patience and/or suggest more money and effort into various new initiatives.
Civic leaders love talking about the facility planned for the current NR Motors site along First Avenue. That fine project shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all but simply one helpful piece to a complex puzzle. Shelters don’t work for everyone in the street population, such as co-dependent couples or people with behavioural issues stemming from addiction and/or mental afflictions.
When a camp was allowed to stay in place for several days early this month at Millennium Park at First Avenue and George Street before being broken up, the reaction was surprising. The business community reported fewer issues on their properties while the homeless population took pride in their temporary home, helping tidy the area.
This reaction begs the question of whether a short-term improvement for everyone involved might be to allow a tent city to go up somewhere downtown for the summer and fall.
It’s not ideal, of course, but are we at the point where anything might be better than the current situation?
There are advantages of setting aside space for the street population. It allows police officers to keep track of problems offenders for law enforcement purposes. It allows social services to better serve individuals for health purposes. It allows the homeless to put down temporary roots without the constant fear of where they will be sleeping tonight and how they will retain their belongings.
It’s also safer. The street population are more vulnerable to violence when spread out in small groups located in out of sight spots across downtown.
A central location for the homeless also provides relief for downtown business owners, who see less trespassing, litter and conflicts on their properties.
Sounds like an improvement but location is the biggest issue.
Besides Millennium Park, the vacant gravel lot down the street near the courthouse is a popular location for the homeless. Both sites are central and close to social services but are quite small and would likely create significant issues for immediate neighbours and possibly for drivers.
What about one, single larger site on public land, a short distance from downtown, away from traffic but still easily accessible?
One such site does exist and it’s literally in The Citizen’s backyard.
Behind our office at the end of Fourth Avenue east of Queensway lies Lower Patricia Boulevard. It’s not an actual street but a gravel right-of-way along the steep bank that separates the area from Patricia Boulevard and the nearby residential neighbourhood. Chain link fences run along both sides of the corridor, which is open to pedestrian traffic at each end.
There is a stretch of this space, about the size and shape of a football field running from a fire hydrant on the eastern end to the last power pole on the western end, that could work for a tent city. There are even two light poles, leftovers from the day the entire site was the City of Prince George’s public works yard. The prospect of power and water could allow for social services to set up a temporary trailer at either end.
Most of the area businesses in this light industrial part of the city are in fenced compounds closed to the public after hours. The residential area is separated from the location by the fence, the bank and Patricia Boulevard.
Campers already used the site from time to time last fall and this spring but were quickly dispersed by bylaw officers.
The site isn’t perfect, of course. It is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind spot half a kilometre from Queensway.
And if this proposal sounds a bit too much like a refugee camp, maybe it’s time to start thinking in those terms, both for humanitarian and practical purposes. The United Nations tends to 26 million people in refugee camps around the world at a cost of $351 US per person per year, offering temporary safety from war, violence and persecution.
Why can’t we have a more humanitarian and practical response here in Canada and here in Prince George to our own internal refugees?
A tent city could be the best, least-worst temporary option left.