'You have to make Leon safer' says Kelowna mental health educator - InfoNews

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'You have to make Leon safer' says Kelowna mental health educator

Campers in this homeless tent city on Leon Avenue in Kelowna.
November 21, 2019 - 6:30 PM

April Butler isn’t afraid of the street entrenched population on Leon Avenue.

As a regional educator at the B.C. Schizophrenia Society just a block away, many of her clients have the same mental health and addiction issues and she treats each person equally.

Lately, however, it's been more difficult.

“Over the years it’s not been uncommon for us to have street people in our doorway doing drugs and we can converse with them and say, ‘it’s not a good spot for this,’” Butler said. “They’re usually, like, ‘no problem’ and move on.”

As the street population has ballooned in recent weeks with a tent city taking shape along Leon Avenue, the nature of interactions has changed.

“What we’re starting to see is they’re becoming more aggressive,” she said.

Previously when someone was panhandling she could say she didn’t have money and the situation would end.

Last week, she said when asked for an example, she was loading up her car for  fundraiser when a woman who she could tell wasn’t doing well came up to her.

Butler said she couldn’t help, got in her car and started backing away.

“Then (the woman) started yelling and screaming and kicking my car,” she said.

It was unsettling, even with her training, but for participants of the society's classes aimed at supporting families of people who have mental health challenges, it’s become a significant deterrent.

“This rise of aggression is affecting our family strengthening class,” she said. That’s when the families of people with mental illnesses get support and access resources.

She and her fellow staff members have been asking people how they feel when they park on Leon Avenue and telling them how to deal with conflicts, but they’re still afraid.

So much so that society members are being called and being asked to go and meet clients at their cars and escort them into the office.

What’s worse is that some drop-ins may not be going in at all and she’ll never know.

“I don’t know how many are not coming in because they’re too afraid,” she said. “I’m frustrated.”

Much of her frustration right now is focussed on Mayor Colin Basran who recently said that the city is using the tools it has to deal with the issue and that’s all they can do.

“You have to make Leon safer,” she said. “You can’t say, ‘put your tents up,’ and then not do anything for the guy in a wheelchair who has go in the middle of the street to get into the (Gospel) Mission.”

If she was pushed to offer solutions, she said she’d say the camp should be moved, maybe to City Park, or Leon Avenue should be closed to traffic.

Regardless, she said, the emerging safety issues have to be better addressed.

“We need more patrolling in the evenings when our classes are done,” she said. “Downtown on Call (the Downtown Kelowna Association’s foot patrol) is not working in the evening when street people have issues, or we’d call them,” Butler said. “They are the overseers — they know everyone on the street by name and they check in on them. But in the evenings when our programs run — by then they’re gone.”

The Downtown Kelowna Association's executive director Mark Burley said between the Downtown On Call and the Clean Team, the business-funded organization is doing everything it can to meet member needs.

They run three shifts of two people throughout the day, and part of their duties are simply talking to the street population and business owners, Burley said.

Their aim now, is as it was 10 years ago, is to create a safer relationship between the street people and the business owners and customers.

"They are talking to people on a personal level," he said. "They know their first name and when they need to they say, 'you got to get up and get moving.'" 

While the reasons why the DKA started a downtown on call service is the same now as it was a decade ago, the dynamics have changed.

"The type of people who are on the streets have changed, and mental health and drug use is more predominant," he said.

And, while they can't do much to change the situation, he said they are advocating for changes.

"We want more services," he said. "We don’t want a tent city on the sidewalk. We don’t want sidewalks blocked."
 
Burley also wanted to disabuse anyone of the notion that there has been a mass exodus from the street. Last year many properties were purchased, and now the leases are simply up.
 
And, he said, while nobody knows who that is or what's to come, he thinks conditions on Leon Avenue will improve.

He, like Butler, has been advocating for resources and change.
 
In the meantime, he recommends that anyone who is uncomfortable to call the Downtown on Call team.
 
"It’s a huge benefit to have a team who can interact with that population on a daily basis," he said. "They're no different than any other community and having someone who can talk with them helps put an end to problems before they happen."

To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 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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