Part of the camp in the Carmi area where a couple of the approximate 28 families is forced to live because they cannot find an affordable home in Penticton. Mark Brett/Western News

The people of Carmi hill

A family forced into living in the forest in the hills above Carmi doesn’t know where to go

If you drive far enough east, out of Penticton, and find the right forestry road, you might find a family.

The age of that family depends on whom you meet. Ages range from two months old to upward of 60 years, able-bodied and disabled alike.

Jay said he and his family have lived up there since the end of May, and like many others living in the Carmi hills, they’re victims of an out-of-control rental market in Penticton. Jay is not his real name, as he has asked to remain anonymous, having several friends he hasn’t told about his living situation.

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But Jay said about 28 families in total live in a 250-square-kilometre forested area east of Penticton, some of whom dig deep into forestry roads with hopes of keeping their location safe and hidden.

Jay’s campsite is well out of town, but he said it is still one of the easier ones to find. It is home to five family members in total, four of whom are on disability pensions, including one young man with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects motor function.

Their story could sound familiar to any number of people: living in a Penticton apartment building, the family was handed an eviction notice for renovations in February, and despite having a few months to find a new place to live, nothing within the family’s price range came up.

A man, who asked that his real name not be used, with his sick dog live in the Carmi area in the bush because they cannot find a place to live. He was told by one landlord to re-apply when his dog is dead. (Mark Brett/Western News)

It wasn’t the family’s first time being evicted.

Since moving into the Carmi hills, the family has had to move around every two weeks — more than 14 days is considered squatting, and the family was recently handed a notice to pack up or face a $1,000 fine.

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Jay said he goes down every day or every second day to find a place to live, but comes up with nothing affordable or nothing at all. Anything that he can find within their price range is taken up in an instant. He said they stop at the South Okanagan Similkameen Brain Injury Society, which is involved in social housing projects in Penticton and offers a list of spaces up for rent. A list he provided to the Western News had spaces ranging from $600 to $1,350 for a one-bedroom unit.

“There’s nothing out there to rent reasonable for anybody. We put our name in for low-income housing, and that was five years ago, but … there’s nothing,” Jay said.

“We’re so desperate for a house, but we don’t know where to find one. And we don’t know where to go, and a lot of motels won’t do winter rentals. We already checked.”

A sweet, attention-loving dog greets newcomers to their campsite with friendly sniffs and happily accepts rubs. Once a 70-lb dog, who Jay said saved his life three times while hunting, she’s now emaciated, with cancer in her lungs and kidneys. Despite maintaining energy, discomfort is visible when she moves.

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That’s added to the difficulty finding a place, with one landlord telling him to “come back when she dies.”

It’s not just their dog that is struggling. A family member in his late-20s living in the campsite has cerebral palsy. Typically travelling on a scooter, he now has to crawl around on tarps strewn across the campsite.

“There’s so many people on disability, EI and pension, but it seems like the landlords don’t care. The City of Penticton or the government should crack down on these people that are trying to get more than what the house is worth,” Jay said.

“It seems like arbitration’s believing all these landlords. And they’re letting them get away with it. That’s why a lot of people up here are so mad at landlords, because they’ll use every excuse to get you out so they can raise the rent.

“That’s how everybody feels up here, all the families. That arbitration is letting them get away with it.”

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While it’s not cheap living in the city, Jay said it’s more expensive living in the forest, between the money spent on fuel heading in and out of town, up and down the mountain, money spent on repairing and maintaining the vehicles — brake pads go quickly, Jay’s son testified — fuel for their generator and water.

“I’d say it’s about $1,200 to live up here,” Jay said.

Many of the 28 families in the hills are struggling even more than Jay is. As a hunter, he’s got an elaborate setup of tents, a camper and a barbecue, as well as a shower he’s rigged up using a water pump he salvaged from a camper someone else left near their campsite.

And in the middle of it all, a Molson Brewery “I am Canadian” flag.

“Because I want to show people that I’m Canadian, but homeless. And, it seems like the government doesn’t care.”

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All that gear is both a blessing and a curse — though it provides some extra comforts, it takes two or three hours to pack up and another two or three to set up in a new spot.

Others don’t have so many luxuries. In fact, Jay’s family gave an extra tent to a couple that didn’t have one.

That’s not an uncommon occurrence, either. Jay said there’s a strong sense of community in the hills, with families helping each other out with food, gas and water fairly regularly, and meeting once or twice a week for community meet-ups.

There, they have met an array of different people: a couple in their 60s, a family with toddlers and one couple that gave birth to a new baby just two months ago.

Driving up to the campsite, amid the evergreens that permeate the South Okanagan, a trichromatic rash of deciduous reds, oranges and yellows populates a part of the Upper Carmi area — a sign of autumn that’s not a common sight in many of the more natural parts of B.C.

But while a beauty to the eye, it’s a sign of harder times yet to come for Jay’s family, as temperatures dip.

“We’re worried with the snow coming soon, and we’ve got more coldness. It’s just that we don’t know what to do.”

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