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Okanagan encampments in jurisdictional ‘Bermuda Triangles’ a shared concern

Building a shared table to tackle moving camps is likely to be part of regional strategic planning
An encampment south of Sage Mesa near Highway 97 has continued to grow, including into the nearby clay banks. Dealing with these types of camps is a shared concern for regional officials. (Brennan Phillips - Western News)

How to tackle encampments set up in jurisdictional “Bermuda Triangles” is something South Okanagan officials are going to look at tackling.

West Bench Director Riley Gettens raised the topic at the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen’s Oct. 6 meeting along with a request that it be added as part of the RDOS’ strategic planning.

The topic was particularly of concern as residents in West Bench have been raising the issue of an encampment that has been set up and even begun establishing itself into and up the nearby clay banks.

“We have an active encampment that’s been building up on the north side of Highway 97 just south of Sage Mesa, and the immediate concern for the community is the fire risk,” said Gettens. “So over the past few days, I think I’ve probably talked to about seven different entities, and nobody has ownership of this.”

Gettens noted that she had spoken with the RDOS’ CAO and bylaw department, with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure given the camp’s location on crown land adjacent to the highway, and with the RCMP.

Interim Supt. Bob Vatamniuck of the RCMP noted that officers have limited power as long as nothing criminal, such as stolen property or violence, is occurring at such camps.

“I will say the unhoused are very clever people in that they find these Bermuda Triangles that have these jurisdictional conundrums,” said Vatamniuck. Having a collaborative table, an active table that can address these as they pop up is a fantastic idea and we’d love to sit at that and explore jurisdictional and enforcement issues.”

The discussion started after other area directors shared examples of recent difficulties, including camping at Cawston’s Kobau Park and an encampment up a forestry road near Okanagan Falls. The idea that the conception among people that it is easier to escape scrutiny, or enforcement at the least, in the rural areas as opposed to in the municipalities was also shared by directors.

In the case of the camp near West Bench, complicating matters is that Gettens said MOTI was not willing to send people into the camp without it being cleared. She also said that the next step will likely involve getting the Penticton Fire Department involved to work with RCMP and perform a fire risk assessment to determine grounds for shutting it down.

While dealing with this camp may be possible in the immediate future, other camps across the region remain likely to continue to be an issue, which spurred the inclusion of a collaborative table as part of the RDOS’ strategic planning.

Director and Penticton Coun. Helena Konanz noted that those future discussions should include talk about supports and places for those people to go beyond the largest city in the region, which she added was already over-franchised when it comes to housing supports.

“I think it’s important for all of us to get together to talk about what we’re gonna do with people when because of fire danger, et cetera, we do have to clear out these encampments, to make sure that Penticton isn’t the only community that takes on the responsibility of so many people that need housing,” said Konanz. “I know there are others, but we need places through the region that can support people who are unhoused.”

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Brennan Phillips

About the Author: Brennan Phillips

Brennan was raised in the Okanagan and is thankful every day that he gets to live and work in one of the most beautiful places in Canada.
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