The litter crew that keeps City of Chilliwack parks looking beautiful has been around for years.
But things are changing.
The recent decision to amend the city parks bylaw to allow homeless to sleep in parks, is affecting the amount of garbage and homeless debris that the crew will have to remove.
The Chilliwack Progress news team headed into the streets on Wednesday morning to see how things were unfolding in a few downtown parks.
They caught up with the city parks litter crew, Natasha Guichon, and Teri-Lynn Nestor, who were hard at work removing trash from Central Community Park, Five Corners Park, and Salish Park.
The job requires they pick up some weird and disgusting stuff on a daily basis.
It’s everything from dead animals, bowls of spaghetti, clothes, furniture, condoms, feces and of course — used needles.
They’re used to it.
The weirdest find ever was intestines, possibly from a tortured animal.
“You get kind of numb to it,” Guichon said.
The parks workers patrol and clean up 15 to 25 city parks on a rotating basis, usually tackling about 10 per day.
“We have a route we follow,” said Guichon.
But sometimes they are delayed in getting over to the Sardis parks, if they spend more time on the Chilliwack side, because that’s where the overflowing garbage tends to pile up.
But it’s not just the homeless leaving stuff behind, Guichon underlined.
“It’s also the regular park users,” she said.
Nestor said all city crews, not just the litter crew, will have more to do.
Other crews patrol all the homeless camps, which is at least 15 hidey holes.
Litter gets dumped all the time, despite the many garbage containers in parks.
Sometimes the workers find homeless people asleep or high in the parks early in the morning when they start at 7 a.m. Once they found a young woman at Townsend Park, doing the nod, with a needle sticking out of her arm.
They are instructed to call bylaw enforcement personnel to request that people who are sleeping rough to move along.
In fact “moving them along” is now what bylaw staff and security do to the street people all day long. There are at least 15 known homeless camps around the city.
Jesse Ruiz is trying to have a life on the streets. He was busy packing up all his belongings in bags, to shift it all from one park to another on Wednesday morning.
What does he think of Chilliwack’s new homeless sleeping in parks bylaw?
“I think it’s good, except for the people who leave tons of garbage everywhere,” said Ruiz.
He said he’s been living outside on and off for two years.
“This is the worst I’ve seen it,” Ruiz said about the green space at Five Corners.
After the original Progress article was published about the new camping in parks for the homeless, lots of folks camped overnight in his favourite little park at Bole and Fletcher.
“The day that news came out, everyone followed me there,” Ruiz said.
City park crews were removing all the trash and belongings left at Five Corners Park after the homeless campers were moved on, as Griffin Security looked on.
The big challenge is discarded needles.
The parks workers pick up about 100 per week, while Griffn personnel nab about 300. The workers are hyper-aware how to avoid a needle-stick and secure the needles safely. They often use a hoe when working around landscaping, and a grabber to put them in the sharps containers.
Letters have been streaming into city hall, from residents complaining about discarded trash, used needles, and the prospect of homeless campers sleeping in nearby parks. A petition started online as well.
The needles are an ongoing concern, said Mayor Sharon Gaetz. The city is one partner of many in Chilliwack behind the Homelessness Action Plan.
But the job of the parks’ litter crew isn’t likely to change too much in the wake of the amended bylaw, just the scope, with more to pick up possibly.
“I don’t blame people one bit for being concerned,” said Gaetz. “Especially when it comes to children who might find a bright orange needle and pick it up.”
City officials have been meeting with Fraser Health to find a solution, she said.
The needle exchange service provided by PCRS used to be contingent on people handing back in their used needles. But now they can just obtain clean needles.
“It’s a huge issue, and we’re trying to work with Fraser Health to find a way to solve it. We want a needle exchange, not a needle distribution service,” Gaetz said.
The old way meant there were very few discarded needles found in Chilliwack only a few years ago.
“We need to come up with a plan, and it better be sooner rather than later,” she said.
Griffin Security CEO Brian Goldstone said the change to allow homeless camping will increase their calls for service.
“It makes us very busy,” he said.
New stickers on existing signage in parks are coming soon to indicate which parks can accommodate structures like lean-tos or tents. The amended bylaw also spells out the conditions under which a shelter or structure, like a tent or tarp structure, could be erected by a street person.
The bylaw says “a homeless person” may “secure, erect, use or maintain in place,” a temporary shelter on a civic property overnight, from 7 p.m. (or 8 p.m. DST) to 8 a.m. the next morning.
However no tents or shelters can go up or be built at any time: “within five metres (or 16.4 feet) of any playground, spray park, sports field, footpath, trail, roadway within a park, pond, river, stream, landscaped area, sports court, ball diamond, civic parking lot or within five metres of a private property or school property adjacent to a civic property.”