The City of Merritt is looking to support unhoused and homeless residents who may be struggling to find accomodation, with city council voting 4-1 at its May 24 meeting to allow tents to be used as overnight shelters in one of the city’s parks.

Merrittonians may have noticed an increase in the presence of tents at N’Kwala Park on Voght Street, with many being visible from the road and pedestrian walkways alike. Rather than punish residents for violating current bylaws, councillors chose to amend the bylaws and address what it says is a growing issue.

“According to the recent homeless counts conducted by the Province, homelessness in Merritt increased since 2018, which detected 11 people who were unhoused,” wrote Greg Lowis, director of corporate services for the City of Merritt.

“Further increases in 2020, which found 43 unhoused people, 26% of whom were sleeping outside, and 6% in a makeshift shelter or tent.”

Councillor Melvina White was the only vote in opposition of the amendment, citing concerns over the safety and security of neighbouring properties, as well as access to sanitary facilities for those camping in the park. City staff stressed during the May 24 regular meeting that it would work closely with both Merritt RCMP and the city’s own bylaw services to ensure a smooth rollout of the amendment and the safety of those in and around the park.

“This isn’t something where we’re just going to jump in with RCMP and bylaw tomorrow morning without a little more conversation about it,” said Sean Smith, chief administrative officer.

“Even when I say enforcement, it’s going to be support and encouragement, and trying to have the softest possible touch with it.”

The passed amendment added the terms ‘homeless person’ and ‘N’Kwala Park’ to parks bylaw 2334, and allows for the temporary construction of shelter at the park along the Nicola River during certain hours. The following are the two added subsections to the bylaw:

4.6.1: A Homeless Person may erect a tent as a temporary shelter in N’Kwala Park for the purpose of sheltering overnight on the day the shelter is constructed.

4.6.2: Any tent erected by a Homeless Person under section 4.6.1 may not be erected earlier than 7pm on the day it is constructed, and must be dismantled and removed from the park by 8am the following morning.

The City is focused on supporting unhoused residents, and is working closely with the Nicola Valley Shelter and Support Society (NVSSS) and Endeavour to Be Better program, who administer social and housing support services at the nearby NVSSS community shelter.

Those who choose to camp at N’Kwala Park can access hot showers and breakfast at the shelter, and the adjoining Lions Memorial Park offers bathroom facilities.

“This is a very partial addressing of a much larger problem,” added Smith, who believes the City is doing its best to respond to an ongoing crisis that affects communities all over BC.

Those needing support can contact NVSSS at 250-315-1350, or visit the shelter at 2350 Voght Street.
For more information on the society and its programs, call 250-315-0155.