Shelley Wold remembers Nov. 28, 2021, very well, as she looks over the Similkameen River, nearby a Princeton residential neighbourhood.
It was the day she left her rental unit on Allison Flats and moved to a small beach, sheltered by trees but devastated by the flood just two weeks earlier.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I came here,” she told the Spotlight.
Wold makes no pretenses. She wasn’t displaced by the natural disaster. She and a friend had exhausted their last housing option.
“We’re not all perfect, I’ll tell you that.”
For the entire winter Wold, 53, lived alone among the trees, and survived with “a fire, a lot of blankets, and a lot of clothes.”
“The (Princeton) Baptist Church was wonderful. They got me a tent, and helped with wood and food.”
As the weather warmed others joined her camp, some staying just for awhile, and others putting down at least some kind of roots.
There are currently four adults living beside the river.
“We are a family and everybody shares. We have rules and everybody has a job. We try to stay happy…Yesterday (redacted) caught a fish and we all had fish for dinner,” Wold said.
Mayor Spencer Coyne says while homelessness has been a growing problem in Princeton over the past few years, this is the first time a tent city has been established.
In past, he said, homelessness was mostly the invisible kind, with people couch surfing, for example. Transients were also part of the homeless equation.
“It’s not the same. These people who are here in this situation, these are residents and in some cases longtime Princeton residents,” he said.
Last month, Coyne organized a meeting of community partner groups that have all been in contact, in some way, with the camp.
Representatives from Princeton Family Services, Princeton and District Community Services Society, Princeton General Hospital, Interior Health and United Way attended and “came up with a loose game plan,” he said.
“We are going to try to find housing options. I know that sounds like the obvious thing, but it’s a little more difficult than that.”
He expects some funding will be available for a non-profit group to conduct a homeless count, which will support the community’s efforts with BC Housing.
A second meeting is planned for the near future.
The mayor took a personal interest in situation this summer, visiting the location and trying to assess needs.
“These are our people,” he said. “I’ve been criticized for enabling because we took water, and some other people have been taking water, and checking in and trying to help were we can help.”
He fears “eventually somebody is going to die either from the elements or substance use.”
Coyne has received many complaints from neighbours to the camp.
“I understand their point of view and I’m sympathetic to it,” responded Coyne.
“But at the same time, we as a community are only going to be as strong as our most vulnerable.
“So if we can’t show some compassion and mercy towards the people who are possibly in the worst place that they can be in right now, then I think we have to take a second to think about what kind of community we want to be.”
Wold agrees the tents and their presence on provincial land has angered those around them, while noting the camp is not visible from the street or any area houses.
“Some people are really cool, but some people are so mean. They yell at us. They tell us to get out and that they think we are stupid. We are just monkeys in a cage to those people,” Wold said.
She candidly acknowledges the existence of substance use at the site, but insists the group does not cause problems for others, or create crime in the area, or hurt anyone. “We don’t steal,” she said.
When asked if she is afraid of her environment or vulnerable situation, Wold shakes her head.
“I’m just afraid I’m never going to have a place to live again.”
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