Marcel Germer (left), Social Development Coordinator for the City of Cranbrook, and the City of Cranbrook Bylaw Officer, visit a tent encampment. (Photo by Hunter Corrigal)

Marcel Germer (left), Social Development Coordinator for the City of Cranbrook, and the City of Cranbrook Bylaw Officer, visit a tent encampment. (Photo by Hunter Corrigal)

“Know Their Name” – A Day in The City Addressing Homelessness

With the growing number of people living without permanent shelter in Cranbrook becoming more visible, the question often arises: “what is the City doing to address homelessness and the encampments in our community?”

It’s a fair question. We see the impacts of homelessness, encampments, and the daily mental health and addictions epidemic, which are a growing concern and impacting businesses and residents, including those living directly with these struggles. Even though we know areas like housing, health, mental health, and addictions are not under the local government’s jurisdiction, we are taking steps beyond simple advocacy and trying to gain the support necessary to help resolve these issues.

The reality is Cranbrook is experiencing significant changes in the community’s social fabric around social challenges with homelessness and addictions. We see the struggles our local programs, community resources and non-profits face trying to meet the growing and changing needs in the community, and appropriate housing options are scarce.

One of the goals of the City’s Social Development Coordinator is to proactively coordinate with federal, provincial and local non-profit delivered programs to identify gaps in social services, improving outcomes of these programs, all the while identifying emerging issues and working together to create plans to manage these issues.

A lot has happened behind the scenes through the City’s Bylaw Services and the new Social Development Coordinator. This team is working on formalizing an encampment response and bylaw to enhance the work already in progress, which should be available to share with you soon.

Over the past months, Bylaw Services has been developing and tweaking a rigorous approach to managing the encampment sites within city property. But it is not an easy task. Most mornings, around 8 am, Bylaw Services, a cleaning crew, the Social Development Coordinator, and security meet at the edge of the largest encampment to discuss the plan for the day and then head over to the tents. Although it is early, usually, there are a few residents out and about cleaning and tidying up when we arrive. They know we are coming, and they do their best to get up early, start organizing their tent area, and pile up anything considered garbage. But this particular morning is different. This morning the site is very quiet. The wind is howling, the dust is blowing, and it is cold.

And today, it is known a young man has recently died.

On a typical day, there is an effort to connect with every person living here. Our Bylaw Officer kindly and firmly talks to the individuals about any existing safety hazards, reinforces the rules around tents and cooking, and reminds them they must take down all structures and remove hazards. She also helps them identify what is considered garbage and what is not allowed to remain at the site. And she often talks to them about the repercussions of crime and theft on the community and reminds them that with rights come responsibilities. The rules aren’t always liked, but amazingly they are mostly followed.

Our Bylaw Officer has created a very respectful relationship with those living here. She is tough yet kind and fair and truly cares about how they are doing. She is always asking questions, and more importantly, she always listens. Over time she has come to know all the individuals by name, knows a little about their families and challenges, and knows a lot about how they come to live at Ridgeview.

Today she knows they are hurting and scared, so her approach is a little softer than usual. She requires that every person poke their head out of their tent, not as a show of authority, but because she honestly wants to see if they are okay. She knows there is a need for safety and cleanliness to be addressed. Still, she also recognizes the suffering and heartbreak, realizes kindness is more powerful than authority, and has found a remarkable balance between compliance and compassion. She sees everyone on that ridge as a human who is struggling and doing their best. And the residents on the ridge know that.

When she moves on, the cleaning crew helps each resident remove the garbage and unsafe articles they aren’t allowed to keep. Like the Bylaw Officer, they are kind, considerate and treat each individual respectfully.

The Social Development Coordinator wanders in amongst all this activity. Sometimes there is a cold bottle of water or a hot coffee to help build relationships. The goal is to check in to see how people are doing, ask what they need to help them move towards housing, connect them to the available resources, encourage them to seek the appropriate help they need, and remind them they are important and part of the fabric of the community. This is repeated throughout the week amongst all the different sites. But the City’s role in attempting to address the homelessness issue does not end with these simple yet essential day-to-day site visits. The City also undertakes a critical advocacy role through Council to the Province of BC, which manages the homelessness issue.

Since the new Mayor and Council took office in October 2022, meetings with provincial Ministers for Municipal Affairs, the BC Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Housing have allowed us to share very clearly the issues of homelessness and affordable housing we are experiencing in Cranbrook. Every effort has been made to have the Province understand our local issues, but also know we will be active partners at the table on these issues. It is a priority of our community and of this Council.

This is not a challenge we take lightly, nor do we expect this situation to be improved overnight. But by taking these steps, we are working collaboratively together. While it may not always be evident from the outside exactly what the City is doing, we are taking a vital step that creates change – making sure we know their names.

Courtesy City of Cranbrook