Kamloops News

McDONALD: Don't want to watch the homeless live their lives on the sidewalk? Give them a place to live

It’s just before breakfast at the Kelowna Gospel Mission and there’s a man with dreadlock hair melting down on the sidewalk just up the street from the place.

Ranting and cursing, the man is unapproachable (as another man soon finds out when he tries) and won’t be consoled over whatever it is that’s bothering him.

“That guy shouldn’t be on the street,” mutters another fellow, waiting for breakfast. Someone else says it’s crystal meth, the guy's been doing a lot of it.

Amongst the breakfast crowd milling about, there’s a couple of people who have shopping carts piled high, presumably with all their wordly possessions.

It was cold the night before and those who have slept outside are probably wearing just about everything they have, rumpled and mismatched. Someone is just waking up in the van across the street.

Others are standing around scratching, smoking, yawning, farting. Someone has recently pissed up against the wall of the building across Leon Avenue.

There’s nothing much about this mundane street scene that’s pretty but that’s the reality of homelessness and something Kelowna residents should consider if they are serious about making scenes like this go away.

As much as anything, individual opinions of homeless people seem not as much about what they do — we all scratch and yawn and piss, some of us do drugs and smoke and drink — but where they do it.

Indeed, some of us do a lot stranger things behind closed doors than merely eat or sleep. But the difference between you and the guy sleeping in a doorway is you’ve got somewhere to do it that isn’t subject to bylaw interference.

Imagine everything you do in your house or apartment (be honest, I mean everything) all your habits, bad and good and weird and then imagine doing it all on a downtown sidewalk where the passersby are hostile and no one will let you use a toilet.

I put it this way to a friend recently who couldn’t believe the Housing First strategy advocates putting everyone — the crazies, the druggies, the hookers, as he calls them — into a housing unit before trying to solve their problems.

“They’ll just do drugs in there,” he warned.

Umm, that’s the point, I told him, to get them off the street then try to see to their needs.

Don’t expect them to suddenly sober up in gratitude. Under the strategy, discreet personal drug use will be tolerated as long as there’s no harm to other residents, although ongoing efforts will be made to connect them with care.

I’m not sure I’ve convinced my friend but despite his anachronistic opinion, I’m convinced that now, more than ever, the stars are aligned for Kelowna to adopt an effective homeless strategy.

I had a chance to chat recently with Martin Bell, one of the co-chairs of Kelowna's Journey Home task force, which uses the Housing First philosophy as a starting point.

Due to reveal their recommendations in two months, Bell says he’s seeing an alignment of interests around the task force table and a willingness by disparate groups to work together in a way he calls unprecedented.

But beyond the people on the front lines, Bell says he sees a new willingness amongst ordinary residents to do something about homelessness in Kelowna, a realization that what’s been done in the past isn’t working and something new might be in order.

This isn’t even really about money, he says, as the task force has positioned the city well to take advantage of federal and provincial housing dollars.

For the Journey Home task force to succeed, it’s going to be about local attitudes such as when B.C. Housing suggests putting supportive housing near your neighbourhood or extends the contract of an emergency shelter.

Remember that the next time you reach for your NIMBY. If you don’t like the idea of giving these people a place to live, the alternative is to watch them live their lives on our city streets and all that entails from discarded needles to public defecation.

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.

News from © iNFOnews, 2018

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