— Pamela Roth
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a rainy morning in October when Const. Dan O’Connor and Sgt. Barrie Cockle pull up to Kings Park in Fernwood.
Three tents of various sizes are pitched in the small park that contains a needle disposal hanging on a white fence. A few pieces of garbage are strewn across the patchy grass.
“Hello, the police are here. Time to get up!” says Cockle to the campers.
A few people zip open their tent and peer at the officers standing patiently outside. One woman they know well — she suffers from serious mental health issues that often lead to problems whenever she’s in the park. On this day, however, she’s cooperative.
Cockle isn’t leaving until the homeless have packed up their belongings and moved on for the day. City bylaws state that people can only shelter in a park between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. That time changes to 7 p.m. in the winter.
Sometimes Cockle has stood at the park for more than two hours waiting for the homeless to pack up and leave. It’s a test of patience for the police and neighbours.
“The people in this neighbourhood are absolutely fed up with this park,” said O’Connor, adding police often respond to drunken disturbances or yelling. Neighbours have also discovered used needles and human feces in their yard.
Two months ago, police would typically see 13 to 14 tents set up at the park, which is located close to homeless services. About a month ago, three truck loads of garbage were removed.
“It’s like pulling teeth. If you don’t stand over them, they are not going to clean up,” said Cockle. “These people we see every day so we get to know them. They have good days and bad days.”
The park is one of several locations O’Connor and Cockle visit on a daily basis. Beginning at 7 a.m., a team of bylaw officers and police with the focused enforcement team (FET) drive around city streets and parks, looking for people camping or sleeping outside businesses.
Many of the people they deal with are suffering from mental health problems or addictions. Some are just down on their luck, struggling with financial problems. Others are notorious criminals selling drugs to survive.
The wake-up calls often take two to three hours to complete. Some people are cooperative, but many are not. Police rely on a lot of persuasion to get the homeless moving each morning. Enforcement is only used as a last resort.
A few weeks ago, a chronic hoarder was charged with mischief. For years, police have been dealing with him strewing his belongings all over private property and city boulevards. Cockle said hoarding is a common problem among many homeless people, who sometimes push around three or four carts stuffed with belongings and have nowhere to go.
“There’s just no other choice,” said Cockle, noting the man who was recently charged had been given plenty of opportunities to get off the streets, but chose not to take them.
“These people are just trying to make a buck and run their business and they have to deal with this every day. It costs them customers or just detracts from people coming to the downtown.”
According to O’Connor, Victoria police try to help the homeless wherever possible, but many don’t want to go to shelters for various reasons such as fighting with others or anti-social behaviours. Officers will try to find housing and connect the homeless with outreach workers. Some people, however, just don’t want to be helped.
“It’s such a complex issue. There isn’t a good solution right now,” said O’Connor, noting the problem is a regional one since services for homeless are all based downtown.
“Police are pushed into this corner a little bit where we have to enforce bylaws, but there’s no solution to where these individuals should go.”
After Kings Park, the officers head to the shelter at Rock Bay Landing where three people are sleeping on the sidewalk underneath green tarps.
“Time to get up,” says Cockle. A young woman huddled under a tarp draped over a bicycle isn’t impressed the police have arrived.
The woman groans. More time passes with little cooperation. Cockle gives another warning, then puts on his gloves and removes the tarp, exposing the unhappy woman to the rain. In a daze, she fumbles around for a few belongings, swears, then storms off into the shelter.
The cardboard she had been sleeping on is left on the ground, along with a few candy bar wrappers, drug paraphernalia and a small bag of crystal meth.
Cockle calls in the garbage man to clean up the mess. The next morning, the officers will do it all over again.
“It’s just something you got to do…We’ve become social workers,” said Cockle, who’s been doing the wake up calls since 2007. Some public spaces have gotten better, he added, but the parks are still the same.
“The time we spend doing this could be spent on other things. A lot of times we watch them pack and it’s garbage. It’s stuff they found, but it’s their personal belongings. It is what it is.”