Focus on Faith

Tim Schroeder is a pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Kelowna. This column runs regularly in Okanagan Weekend.

Walk down Leon Avenue in Kelowna, that is, if you dare. I know, you think you don’t need to take the stroll because you’ve followed the newscasts, talk shows and letters to the editor.

You think you know what’s going on, however the gravity of the situation on Leon Avenue cannot be appreciated by watching a newscast. Walk or drive slowly, talk to some who live there, talk to nearby business owners and hear their desperation, talk to those who work at the Gospel Mission and are filled with deep compassion and deep frustration. Educate yourself with a first person understanding of the reality that has become Leon Avenue.

Upon completion of your educational venture I am confident one conclusion will be universally agreed on. Regardless one’s personal solution bias, there is complete agreement that we have a horrible, desperate crisis down there. No one denies or debates that it is completely out of control.

Another conclusion, but this one not enjoying the same widespread agreement is this: “The situation on Leon is our problem!” Yes, we can request federal or provincial help, but when everything is said and done this is our city and our problem.

If you’ve lived in Kelowna more than five years, as most of us have, then it behooves us all to look directly in the mirror and acknowledge that this crisis has occurred on our watch. We allowed it to happen and we bear the responsibility to solve it. No one from the outside has either the interest or the wherewithal to deal with our problems.

A contributing factor to the Leon crisis is the fact that its complexity has resulted in no single agreed upon approach. There are numerous solutions in play and rather than having the desired outcome they seem to be pitted against each other.

One group throws up their hands in frustration claiming nothing can be done. They resort to finger pointing and blaming, identifying anyone and everyone from the federal government and the RCMP, to City Hall, to the parents of those living on Leon as the cause of the problem.

Another group, such as the so-called advocates who parachuted in from out of town, claim to care, blame society at large, and demand, yes that’s the word they used, demand we supply the Leon dwellers with everything they need to keep living there as comfortably as possible.

And, by the way, how dare the police or bylaw officers remove their stolen shopping carts?

A third group which is growing in number daily has had enough and is advocating a much heavier handed approach to clear up the situation. While understanding the frustration of this group, Mayor Colin Basran raises one pertinent question, “Where will they go?”

They undoubtedly could be pushed off Leon Avenue but where to? Would City Hall, or Hobson Road, or Dilworth Mountain or Kettle Valley welcome their presence? That, by the way is what is known as a rhetorical question.

As a Christian and leader in the Christian community, I admit to being deeply conflicted by the dilemma. On the one hand, these are real people. Many of them have tragic personal stories which have contributed to their present circumstance. I feel for them. I am instructed to, and in fact do feel compassion and a desire to help.

On the other hand, up to this point in time all the attempts to help, and there have been numerous attempts made, have clearly not had the desired outcomes. Whatever it is we have been doing has not alleviated the current crisis but rather seems to have contributed to it. All the free meals, shelters, clothing drives and acts of kindness may have lessened a few of the symptoms, but have not in any way solved the problem.

To quote Albert Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Continuing the behaviour that created Leon Avenue will never solve it.

Before venturing further on this topic, I must add that I am not writing from a soap box claiming to have the solution. If I did I’d be knocking down the door to City Hall to ensure my solution was heard. Rather, I am writing to suggest that current approaches clearly do not seem to be working and that it may be time to consider serious alternatives.

Alternatives bring me back to my Christian dilemma. How can we love and care for the poor and simultaneously clear up a desperate mess? There must be a way. One day Jesus encountered a group of 1st Century marginalized individuals (John 5). Most of them had health issues and it can be safely inferred from the common practice of that era that they also likely had financial needs, met by begging.

Social programs were not well developed. This group hung out near a pool known for its healing properties hoping for a cure. Jesus approached that scene, singled out one man who had been lame for 38 years and asked what on the surface would seem to be a ridiculous question. He asked the man, “Would you like to be well?”

Of course the man wanted to be well didn’t he? Maybe, maybe not. He didn’t respond with a resounding, “Yes.” Rather he began to offer excuses as to why he hadn’t been healed. He suggested it was the fault of others who didn’t help him into the pool quickly enough.

Reading between the lines one might even conclude that he realized that if he was healed from his paralysis, he would become fully responsible for caring for his own needs instead of begging.

The question of Jesus seems pertinent to the current Leon crisis. Do you want to be well? Do you want to be sober and clean? Would you like a job to earn your way in society and perhaps even contribute to others who are less well off?

There seems to be much comment about getting these people off the street but very little is said about changing the trajectory of their lives.

A letter to the editor last week has been circulating around town describing the approach taken in Marysville, WA to a situation similar to Leon Avenue. One aspect to their approach is that it seems to address the very issue Jesus addressed in the 1st Century.

They ask people, “Do you want to be clean and sober and work and pay your own way?” To those who answer in the affirmative they move heaven and earth to get them into treatment and then job training. I for one think Marysville is onto something.

By all means let’s get those without homes into housing, dry housing, sober housing not an ill-conceived concept of drug houses which changes nothing but their location. Let’s tackle their problems one by one and help them change their life course.

To those who are unable to contribute because of serious and legitimate mental health issues, let’s treat their illness to the best of our ability. This is what compassion demands.But, to those who simply do not want the responsibility of paying their own way in life, I’m sorry, but let’s make Kelowna a very unwelcome place for them. That’s not unchristian, it’s real life.

The Leon crisis didn’t arise over night and it would be unfair to suggest it can be solved quickly. That, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be solved.

I for one honestly believe that if we all pull together, agree on a unified approach and put our best resources on the table – this problem can be solved.