West Kelowna Mayor Gord Milsom met Friday afternoon with a group of frustrated West Kelowna businesspeople tired of picking up needles, condoms and human feces from around their businesses in downtown Westbank.
Business owners, who did not wish to be identified because they feared a backlash, told stories of homeless people having sex in public, fighting on the streets and frightening clients by accosting them, yelling, swearing and asking for money.
They claim people are afraid to walk down Brown Road, which the city recently spent $3.1 million revitalizing, because homeless people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are laying on the sidewalk or on street benches with their buggies.
There has also been an increase of break-ins with some businesses resorting to keeping their doors locked at all times.
The RCMP are called every day, but arrested offenders are out in a couple of hours, say business owners.
Long-time businesses are considering moving out of Westbank, which is being called a ghetto.
Businesses are losing clients and employees, and building owners are losing tenants, they say.
“If this town wants to exist, you better get a business strategy which is the people that pay the taxes don't want the bums,” said one building owner. “It’s quite simple. It kills business.”
The businesspeople claim the homeless shelter in Westbank United Church is at the root of the problem, attracting homeless from as far away as Vancouver.
They want it moved.
While the problems have slowed down a bit since the community lunch program was discontinued at the church, they still remain.
One business owner suggested a ranch where the homeless can work for their breakfast, lunch and dinner to give them a purpose while they undergo treatment.
Another suggested making Westbank less attractive for the homeless so they will move on.
Milsom advised the business people the shelter had recently gone from an emergency shelter to a bridge shelter with services provided for 38 individuals.
B.C. Housing is looking for another facility for permanent transitional housing, he added.
Milsom suggested the problems weren’t coming from people at the shelter, but from the homeless camps in the woods nearby.
Homeless camps are a global problem with camps throughout every major city in North America, Milsom said.
“Public safety in the downtown core is a big concern of council,” said Milsom.
He plans to put together a town hall meeting for businesses and the RCMP, bylaw, B.C. Housing, MLA Ben Stewart, MP Dan Albas and the West Kelowna Shelter Society as soon as possible.
Milsom noted mental health and addiction are provincial issues while the municipality’s jurisdiction is policing and bylaw.
“We’re going to do our best as a municipality to deal with it,” he said.
While Penticton council recently passed a bylaw making it an offence to sit or lie on sidewalks in certain areas of downtown Penticton, Milsom said West Kelowna would not follow suit.
“I think this is a bigger issue than that,” said Milsom. “It’s addiction problems, it’s homeless problems.”