It took only 15 minutes for emotions to boil over as more than 200 people filled the Westbank Lions Community Centre Thursday night for a town hall meeting on vagrancy, drugs and crime in downtown Westbank.
Nancy Henderson, West Kelowna’s general manager of development services, was a few minutes into her presentation on city initiatives when someone yelled out from the back, “Talk about the homeless. We don’t want to hear about the politics.”
The meeting was called after frustrated downtown business owners complained of people afraid to walk downtown as well as having to pick up needles, condoms and human feces from around their businesses.
The purpose of the town hall was twofold: to educate the community on what the city and various agencies are doing about homelessness, and to collect ideas and suggestions from citizens.
On hand were West Kelowna Mayor Gord Milsom and council, as well as representatives from the Westbank First Nation, BC Housing, the Interior Health Authority, the RCMP and the West Kelowna Shelter Society.
Dhorea Ramanula, manager of the West Kelowna Shelter, now the Brown Road Housing Model, said the facility can house up to 38 people until they get supportive housing. The program supports people and teaches them life skills to prepare them for supportive housing.
“We are no longer warehousing folks,” she said. “We are moving from survive to thrive.”
Ramanula noted that since May 15, five people have been housed from the model and four residents have full-time employment. They have had to turn away 32 homeless people since May.
Dr. Silvina Mema, with Interior Health, acknowledged homelessness is increasing in communities across the province and briefly addressed harm reduction, which includes giving addicts syringes.
“Harm reduction is not enabling people to use substances,” said Mema. “It is keeping them alive until they are ready to recover.”
Some who spoke at the meeting were against shelters and assistance programs.
“If we want to guarantee a Westbank fouled by human excrement, discarded needles, tent cities and rat-infested garbage, we just have to continue more of what we’re already doing,” said Ed White, noting the addition of shelters and assistance programs only makes it more convenient for the drug addicts to move here.
Other speakers thought the shelter on Brown Road should be moved. Danielle Ball said the shelter should be closer to the bridge since services were in Kelowna.
“I can tell you where it shouldn’t be: probably not next to a daycare, probably not next to a retirement community,” she said.
Increased enforcement was also suggested.
“We need to get police out there 24-7,” said Esther Fortunat, adding that those who get arrested are out on the street two hours later. “We need to do something different because it’s not working.”
Rory Helgesen, who had been on downtown safety patrol for 10 months, said security and policing do not cure homelessness. Helgesen emphasized this was his personal opinion.
“I firmly believe that the current model of transitional housing is the correct one, far superior to the shelter model,” he said.
Two residents of the shelter spoke.
Johnny Sweetdreams admitted he was an alcoholic and part of the problem, but noted there was nowhere for him to go.
Henry McDougall, a Westbank First Nation member, is currently at the shelter and said he was grateful for where he is.
“Even in my addiction, I don’t bother anybody,” he said. “I don’t hurt anybody but myself.”
The information collected at the meeting will be compiled into a report that will be presented at a future council meeting.