Fire at old Kelowna church fuels debate about homeless people who shelter there | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Fire at old Kelowna church fuels debate about homeless people who shelter there

The fire was in the alcove to the left of the bus shelter at Kelowna's First United Church.
Image Credit: Google maps
August 14, 2021 - 7:00 AM

Kelowna’s Bernard Avenue stretches from a vibrant street café scene near Okanagan Lake through two beautiful blocks of heritage homes before it continues past Ethel Street.

But, in between, there are the trappings of poverty and homelessness that could have led to the disastrous destruction of one of the city’s oldest and most visible heritage buildings, the First United Church at Richter Street, early yesterday morning, Aug. 13.

That’s when a fire was discovered by a neighbour in the alcove facing Bernard Avenue where homeless people often shelter.

One man who was in that alcove stayed and talked to firefighters and police after the fire, which burned into the door, was extinguished.

“He said he had fallen asleep, that others were with him and he woke up and there was fire,” Cheryl Perry, Minister of Families and Social Justice with the church, told “He doesn’t seem to know exactly how it started.”

Fire officials reported that the fire was accidental.

While the fire was minor in nature, it triggered complaints from one nearby resident, who said many of her neighbours feel the same about the church’s refusal to block access to that alcove by installing a gate in front of the emergency exit door.

“It would be a real shame to lose that heritage site because they refuse to gate it,” the neighbour said. “It has been an ongoing problem for years. I’m not surprised it’s come down to this.”

Perry is well aware of the concerns of some neighbours but, part of what her church does is try to help the homeless. It has outreach programs and Tuesday and Thursday morning coffee services that includes handing out sandwiches to some of the very people who shelter in that alcove.

Sometimes people stay there on a regular basis and are known by name to Perry. Sometimes they ask for a mop and a bucket to clean up the area, she said.

If the alcove is gated off, they would have to find other places to shelter because they often have multiple issues that don’t make them suitable for the big supportive housing units that have been built in the last few years.

The neighbour complained about the garbage these people generate, drug paraphernalia and used condoms they leave behind and how disturbing their presence is for the elderly or people with young children using the bus stop near the alcove.

But Perry puts a different perspective on that.

“I ask people to consider, when they walk past somebody who is sleeping in that alcove and say, that looks terrible, it looks scary to me, I have children with me, I’m going to go to the bus stop that’s right there and I feel unsafe,” Perry said. “I ask them to think about it from the perspective of the person that is sleeping there.

“For them, they may wander all night because it’s not safe to lie down anywhere and, during the day, they feel safer exactly because you are walking by, because you’re at the bus stop, because it’s a busy corner and they can put their back against a building and have two other sides (walls) and know what’s coming at them and their possessions feel safer and everything. It’s all how we look at things.”

Knowing that everyone in the church’s congregation doesn’t feel the same way as she does about the homeless, she’s sure there will be further conversations about whether that alcove should be gated off.

As for the safety of the church, the door where the fire burned is very thick so the fire would have to burn for a long time before it penetrated into the building, which does have alarms, she said. Smoke did get into the building, which had to be vented by the fire department.

Awhile ago, the alarms did go off, triggered by a leak.

When one of the neighbours attending a coffee morning asked about it, Perry said it was nothing to worry about.

“But, I told him some people might wish for a match to be dropped here in this building,” she said. “It’s old. It was built in 1928 and has lots of problems. I was sort of joking. He looked at me and his eyes went really wide and he said, no Cheryl, this building means too much to too many people. That could never happen.

“It reminded me, in a good way, our church is trying to be a good member of this community and try to help people. People care about the building who don’t ever come to worship there or consider themselves members of First United.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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