Compassion in short supply at West Kelowna town hall meeting on homelessness

One of the dozens of speakers at a town hall meeting on homelessness and crime held in West Kelowna, Thursday, June 27, 2019.

WEST KELOWNA - During an evening of serious discussion about homelessness and crime in West Kelowna, one woman’s comments elicited an outburst of laughter and groans.

It’s unlikely that was the reaction she intended at last night's, June 27, town hall meeting in West Kelowna.

“I understand why they are using drugs to numb the pain,” she told the crowd of about 150 people. “Instead of being in fear of our neighbours perhaps, take a moment, to go out for coffee with one of them and hear their stories.”

The crowd burst into laughter, which is not surprising given the majority favoured the 'tough love' approach to the drug use, crime, public defecation, sex acts and vandalism so many attribute solely to homeless people since an emergency shelter was opened at the Westbank United Church last winter.

One woman got loud applause for suggesting addicts be sent to a ranch for rehabilitation “whether they want to or not” since addicts don’t know what’s good for them.

“Drug addicts come here because you hand out drugs,” said another.

“If they want to be treated with respect, they need to be held to the same standards as the rest of us,” one man said.

The purpose of the town hall meeting was to have residents offer solutions to the problem.

“There’s one easy way to fix it,” said Travis McPherson, general manager of Wiski-Jack’s pub. “Move it.”

That comment sparked one of the loudest rounds of applause of the evening.

Not that compassion was totally absent. A number of speakers talked about the importance of helping those who suffer from addiction and homelessness, but for the most part, those only received polite applause.

Jessica Woo from the Okanagan Regional Library's West Kelowna branch cited statistics that show calls to police in the first half of 2019 dropped 66 per cent from the previous year after the shelter opened in the nearby United Church.

That was due, in part, to the fact that the church is now being used for interim housing so residents can stay there all day, rather than only having a place to sleep at night. In the past, they used the library to hang out. Now, the homeless who use it are respectful, she said.

Kathy Hogman, the minister for the Westbank United Church, talked about how it has been helping those in need since 1938 and was happy to offer the church as a shelter and, now, as temporary housing.

“As we become aware of a need in the community, we respond with everything we have,” she said.

One suggestion came from a woman who lives in a mobile home park and has been fighting for years to keep her home there in the face of pressures from developers.

“We have to not create homelessness in the first place,” she said. “If the infrastructure in our park fails and he (landlord) gets us out, then we are the homeless. We are the marginal people.”

The intent of the meeting was to get public input. A summary report will go to city council later in the summer and council will respond at that time.

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