Editor’s note: This article in Part 1 in a series about the seemingly growing homeless population in Ponoka and the surrounding issues with trespassing, vandalism and social concerns.
Some Ponoka residents are concerned and frustrated about garbage dumping, hazardous materials and vandalism as the homeless population and those living with substance abuse issues seems to be on the rise.
Several homeless camps and other incidents have been posted about on local social media pages in recent months.
One Facebook user said their outhouse had been broken into and vandalized, with the urinal being clogged with possible drug paraphernalia, such as tinfoil and latex gloves.
“My kids sometimes have to use this outhouse and it’s getting out of hand,” the post reads. “What is with the drug problem in Ponoka lately?”
One Ponoka senior says he’s had enough. The property he co-owns in the river valley has recently been cleaned up and he’s posted it for sale.
Despite no trespassing signs posted around the property, Ken Henkelman said he wasn’t “getting any satisfaction,” when it came to trying to deal with trespassers.
He doesn’t have the $20,000 it would likely cost to put a chain link fence around the property, and says trespassers would just find a way around or under it anyways, he said.
Henkelman said all his previous efforts to keep what he believes are drug addicts from squatting there, dumping garbage and, he believes, stolen property, were in vain.
He said he’d spoken to the RCMP but didn’t find it helpful and was considering reaching out to other local officials before deciding to sell the property.
“I’m so frustrated,” he had said. “I don’t know where to turn,”
Henkleman said at one point he removed three or four-ton loads of garbage off the property.
“It’s just so disgusting — all the needles and (presumably) stolen junk,” he said.
“I don’t know what makes people think it’s OK,” he said about those who are trespassing and littering.
There has been sleeping bags there and various items labelled with different names, which led him to believe the items were stolen.
His concern wasn’t just about the mess left behind, but safety as well, as the river gets high and floods in the spring, and there’s always the risk of a fire spreading through the brush.
Henkleman noted he’s not well and wants to make sure the property is taken care of while he’s still around.
There are proper authorities to report squatters or trespassers to, depending on if it’s public or private property.
Squatting on public land is enforceable by local bylaw enforcement, said Ponoka RCMP detachment commander Staff Sgt. Erin St-Cyr.
Bylaw enforcement in the Town of Ponoka is provided by a full-time Community Peace Officer (CPO) Wes Allison.
Citizens can request bylaw enforcement assistance online at ponoka.ca or by calling the town office at 403-783-4431.
“Trespassing on private property is an offence under the Petty Trespass Act. There are provisions under the act that must be in place to make it enforceable by the police,” stated information provided by Ponoka RCMP.
“The RCMP are available to partner with, and assist, property owners with the enforcement of this act when appropriate.
“Community members and/or property owners are encouraged to research the Trespass Act in order to educate themselves on the Petty Trespass Act.”
The act can be found online and is current as of April 1, 2023.
Dealing with trespassers can be a complicated issue for law enforcement, and it was emphasized the resolution of a trespassing situation needs to be a collaborative, cooperative process with property owners to implement solutions.
In order for RCMP members to enforce the Petty Trespass Act, they need to find the offenders while they are committing the act, said St-Cyr.
Law enforcement also needs citizens to be willing to provide a statement to police.
To provide evidence of trespassers on private property, St-Cyr suggests the property owner take out their cell phone and record a video.
“It’s a partnership — that used to be common,” said Const. Myron Lemke, who is currently acting in the Sergeant (Ops NCO) position at the Ponoka detachment.
When RCMP do locate trespassers in the act, there isn’t always a simple solution, either.
As these offenders tend to be homeless people dealing with challenges such as substance abuse issues, they can’t afford to pay a trespassing fine, said St-Cyr.
There is also no local shelter. If the person is agreeable, the RCMP can transport them to a shelter in Wetaskiwin or Red Deer, although those types of transports are more common in cold, winter months.
It was noted the RCMP does not encourage or condone property owners defending their property by force.
To have debris, garbage or bio-hazardous material cleaned up from a private property, the owner would need to contact a private company that provides such services.
If property owners believe trespassers may have left behind high-value stolen property such as a vehicle or high-end tools or electronics, they can report it to the RCMP.
The RCMP also encourages property owners to bring any high value items they presume to be stolen to the detachment.
Lemke said they’ve seen some people hesitate to bring in items, however, not everything requires an officer onsite to retrieve.
In order to discourage or deter trespassing activity, the Ponoka RCMP encourages homeowners to employ various steps and measures to secure their property, including:
– add ‘No Trespassing’ signage to their property;
– consider fencing off access points to their property;
– Making records or keeping a running log of infractions; and
– removing heavy growth vegetation from areas that attract trespassers.
“We work with homeowners; when they do their part, then we do our part,” said Lemke.