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McDONALD: Kelowna council pushing the boundaries in its treatment of the homeless

March 02, 2018 - 1:19 PM



Fair but firm. Kinda rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Kelowna city councillors use those words a lot, almost like a mantra, to sum up their approach to many decisions.

Pushy developers, noisy neighbours as well as the homeless and their attendant disorder, all have had this maxim applied to them during various council debates.

Indeed, the phrase is enshrined as one of council’s top priorities, amongst other slogans such as “provide pragmatic leadership” and “focus on planning excellence”.

But somehow “fair but firm” seems to be the one that councillors bring out most often during discussions justifying their decisions, especially those aimed at controlling the homeless.

For let’s make no mistake, the upcoming pan-handling bylaw, the ban on sidewalk sleeping in 2016 and the continuing presence of the anti-camping bylaws on the books are all firmly aimed at the homeless, despite council’s protestations to the contrary.

So are the presence of multiple street cameras, part of a surveillance system which could soon be moving to live monitoring and emergency dispatching.

Fair enough. As Mayor Colin Basran is fond of pointing out, social issues such as homelessness and street crime have for the first time overtaken transportation — traffic jams and parking problems — as the top concern of local residents.

And to be fair, this council has responded, although I’m not sure they had much choice.

If you regard visible homelessness as a problem, then it was no longer possible to ignore Leon Avenue and its growing resemblance to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Still, hiring a social development manager to coordinate local homelessness response efforts, firing up the Journey Home task force and embracing the Housing First strategy all seem like sound moves to make in reaction to this seemingly-intractable problem.

But while efforts to help Kelowna’s street homeless have moved forward under this council, so too have efforts to contain them and it isn’t a case of Kelowna following the herd.

The introduction of these so-called Good Neighbour bylaws and CCTV street cameras puts Kelowna ahead of many communities, and in some cases has it flirting with constitutional boundaries.

The anti-camping bylaw remains on Kelowna's books even though it has been ruled unconstitutional by B.C.’s Supreme Court to stop a person from camping in a municipal park if a shelter bed cannot be provided.

B.C.’s privacy commissioner has openly expressed concerns about Kelowna’s CCTV cameras and plans for live monitoring and the sidewalk sleeping law puts Kelowna in outlier territory amongst its peers. Most have no such bylaw on the books.

Mayor Basran has proven thin-skinned over this issue, bristling at any suggestion that council is criminalizing the homeless, pointing when pressed to the Journey Home task force.

Fair enough. Let’s allow the task force to do its work.

But my fear is the “fair” part of the equation will crumble when the true cost of dealing with the problem is fully revealed — the city’s own consultant has warned of the “big ask” that’s likely to accompany the solution.

Will the business community and a council that so clearly represents them be willing to endure a significant property tax hike to fund the task force’s recommendations?

My hope is Kelowna city council’s resolve remains as "firm" when the trials and tribulations of turning homeless policy into reality become clear.

— 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

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