The community mosaic and covered platform of Ross Street Plaza sits surrounded by a padlocked metal fence.
Mayor Alan Harrison said city council made a decision on the night of Monday, Nov. 23 to temporarily close the cement portion of the plaza Nov. 24 and post no-camping notices because of community safety and security.
He said the city has followed a process of trying to help those people who have been camping there.
Cardboard boxes and tarps have formed makeshift shelters for the people who have have been staying there, possibly one or two overnight.
“We’ve been trying our best to do it in a very kind manner,” Harrison said of attempts to help.
“As you know there is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week shelter at McGuire Inn, three meals a day, 24-hour service, with their own room and own washroom… We’re trying to work with BC Housing to keep people safe.”
He said there’s no time set yet for the plaza to be reopened.
The sign on the metal fence states: “Overnight camping is strictly prohibited for safety and security reasons. If you are in need of assistance, please call: •811 – health line; •911 – emergency, fire, ambulance, police; •250-832-6044 – non-emergency RCMP phone number; •250-832-9166 – The Lighthouse Shelter.”
Harrison said the community’s outreach worker, its bylaw people, city staff, the Canadian Mental Health Association and BC Housing hope to be able to provide the people involved with an alternate place to stay.
He reiterated there is room at the Lighthouse Shelter in the McGuire Lake building which is run by the Salvation Army.
“They’re doing their very best, along with CMHA, to help out.”
He said the people who were camping at the plaza have been spoken to many times; “we’ve tried to encourage and help them.”
He said the city has also worked with Downtown Salmon Arm.
“This is a difficult decision for council, not one we’ve easily come to.”
Lieutenant Joel Torrens of the Salvation Army said his organization was notified by the city of the decision the morning of Nov. 24.
“We recognize it’s a difficult time for everybody. It’s important to remember the vulnerable people in our community and how they’re affected by some of these changes.”
Asked to elaborate, he said: “I think most people are aware there have been people in and around the Ross Street Plaza. I know the city didn’t arrive at the decision lightly. I feel it’s yet another situation where there isn’t a good option and everyone is doing the best they can.”
He went on to say that although the closure of the plaza might be frustrating or inconvenient for some, “there are people who use that space because they didn’t have any other options.”
“It’s completely understandable that the city took that action, and we just can’t forget the people affected by it.”
Torrens said one of the key things agencies such as his have found is that loss of public space has had a large effect on the vulnerable community. He mentioned that when the pandemic lock-down initially happened, a number of agencies were trying to figure out solutions. Washrooms had been closed, places to stay out of the weather were few. He said the city did a lot of work to help.
Regarding the Ross Street Plaza, he remarked: “It’s a unique gathering place. I think sometimes people that we (the Salvation Army) serve are there, but I also know there are people there that haven’t been able to come to our place because of a history of behaviour or capacity issues we have.”
With recognition that restrictions to public spaces affect people without homes, he added that Salmon Arm is a town where people care.
“A lot of people talk through these things and work on solutions.”
He said knowing that people care so much is a source of hope for him.
“I know that people care, I know that people are working in front of the scenes, behind the scenes to support people. I know the city is doing that work, I know CMHA is doing that work, I see it everywhere. I can’t say enough about this community. I know residents have stepped up time and time again to support the vulnerable population.”