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Fire in Quesnel exposes homeless dangers

Living on the streets has multiple threats
A bylaw enforcement officer inspects another nearby encampment that was occupied. The woman said the only housing offered to her was Seasons House, an emergency homeless shelter she refuses to go to. (Rebecca Dyok photo — Quesnel Observer)

Luckily, no one was home when a fire broke out at the tent structure by the river that houses otherwise homeless city residents.

For those who saw the onset of winter but did not see a complete abandonment of the encampment in the downtown area, it seemed almost inevitable that attempts to stay warm on cold nights would be dangerous. This incident thankfully did no harm, but did damage to what was someone’s (at times several people’s) makeshift home.

Tanya Turner, the director of development services for the City of Quesnel, said that she worries for the wellbeing of all downtown residents affected by the encampment that bustled during the summer, and that concern extends in particular ways to the residents of the ramshackle shelters that face death every night either by exposure or by fire, to say nothing of the threats within the drugs, so many of them are compelled by.

“We don’t want people outside,” Turner said simply. “I can clearly advise you that the people who are there have been offered places to go, and I can clarify with you that we have been working with shelter organizations – and BC Housing has been a great partner – trying to offer up options. There are offers of places to go, for sure, and I can’t comment on why, but some individuals have chosen to stay.”

The Quesnel Native Friendship Society is one of those organizations attempting to help. Executive director Tony Goulet told the Observer that there are no easy answers and too few dedicated resources to address the people living in ultra rustic conditions and also afflicted by addiction or mental health forces.

“We are unique because from our location you can look out across the river and see the encampment right on the side of the bank. The camp is going down now (in population). It was huge during the summer months, but now you can see it scaling down,” Goulet said.

He added that “We know them, we try to get them services, working with some of them, because we have that connection. We are working with the nations – the Lhtako, Lhoosk’uz, ?Esdilagh, Nazko – having some meetings to discuss how we can help out these individuals. Whether it be creating something, looking at how we can give them services, or maybe seeing if there is housing available. A lot of the reserves have housing, and maybe they can get them inside there, so we are working on that. We have some churches that help out, but they are at max. Everything is maxed out.”

The City of Quesnel has looked at possible remedies and at the attempts of other communities that have even more pronounced homeless crises underway, some for a very long time.

“We are very cognizant of what’s going on in other communities, legal challenges, and the need to work with our social agencies to get people into appropriate accommodations,” said Turner. “Unfortunately, municipalities have not been looked upon favourably by the courts when taking any kind of enforcement action on these kinds of encampments. We think we have strong partnerships with other agencies and are trying to really lean on those to try to get to different results.”

General society’s blame often lands on municipalities because local government is closest in physical and social proximity, but Turner said that the majority of the issues in need of address are squarely in the jurisdiction of the provincial and federal governments and their partnerships with First Nations. She and the municipality will do what they can within their purview and hope that harm doesn’t occur in the meantime.

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