Saanich police’s long-running bicycle patrol officers are often the first point of contact for homeless people in Saanich, but the unit is now off the road due to staffing issues.
The four bike patrol officers were reassigned in late September to different duties, two as uniformed vehicle patrol officers. The bike patrol unit would often ride deep into park areas to monitor homeless camps and provide information on finding shelter. This can be a critical service as cold weather sets in.
Sgt. Steve Eassie said officers in cars don’t have the same range to seek out homeless people, but are being diligent in checking known homeless areas.
“We do our best, but it’s not the same mobility. Members do get out of cars and walk through areas we know are frequented by folks who like to camp out,” Eassie said. “We make sure they know resources are available.”
Eassie said the bike section was suspended when the department needed more officers on patrol and to head up different sections.
Saanich police Const. Rob McDonald, a bike unit member, said the patrol is expected to resume January.
Typically in the winter, bike officers would distribute energy bars, toques and mitts to those living rough. People tend to camp in large parks like Cuthbert Holmes and Elk-Beaver Lake.
“We came across three or four people per day, sometimes the same people. Saanich has about 15 to 20 regularly homeless people I’m aware of,” McDonald said. “Many are never found because they don’t want to be found.
“People that need help tend to be in visible places. The chances of (vehicle) patrol not running into the majority of people is slim.”
The extreme weather protocol has kicked in each day since Dec. 1, triggered when the daily forecast meets certain criteria, such as snow or the temperature reaching -2 C.
The Native Friendship Centre on Regina Street has 25 mats and is the only emergency shelter in Saanich. The rest are in downtown Victoria.
Emergency officials say people who regularly find themselves on the street generally have high awareness of shelters and how to access resources.
“Most people know where the shelters are,” said Jen Bacon, co-ordinator for the Greater Victoria extreme weather protocol. “Most people in the (Saanich) area are familiar with the program and how to access it. It’s real word of mouth with the homeless population.”
Frank MacDonald, Saanich deputy fire chief and emergency program co-ordinator, said its rare for people to be caught out in the cold. If that is the case, police tend to come across them quickly, he said.
“Some are extremely well prepared, like they are going on a Himalayan expedition,” he said. “But there are situations of people new to the region or people in a new situation and who don’t know the supports available. Police are good at lending a helping hand.”
For more on the extreme weather protocol, see vewp.net.