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McDONALD: Kelowna is learning — again — that homelessness is not a simple problem

June 30, 2017 - 12:20 PM

 


OPINION


They came at dawn, as expected, but still to good effect.

With flashlights drawn, the bylaw officers began rousting anyone who wasn’t already awake, under the watchful eyes of an RCMP sergeant and a clutch of constables. Bleary-eyed, the handful of campers huddled silently as the officers rolled up their scrappy tents and sleeping bags and bundled them into a city truck. Passive resistance was the considered strategy.

Well, mostly passive. One camper, street name Raven, began arguing with an officer over his meagre possessions. He was immediately arrested. By the time I got there the early morning raid on Camp Freedom was mostly over, with Raven bundled off in a police cruiser and the rest of the campers left to grouse amongst each other over their treatment.

Long before the well-publicized tent cities of Vancouver and Victoria, Kelowna had its own political protest by the homeless for the homeless. Led by the charismatic Merlin, who would later try to run for mayor, a group of street homeless declared an empty patch of city-owned land beside an electrical substation in the North End as Camp Freedom.

As a health reporter with a strong interest in social issues, I was all over it and had arranged for the campers to call me when the much-anticipated raid began.
It only took a week or so of hearing Merlin wax political to the media about Kelowna’s homeless situation before the authorities moved in.

As far as politically-motivated police actions go, this one was pretty tame. No one was hurt. No one else was arrested and they were allowed to retrieve their personal possessions. Even Raven, the hot-head of the group, was quickly released without charges and the protest, such as it was, quickly fizzled.

Camp Freedom’s demise happened against the backdrop in Kelowna of a surge in street drug use and its concomitant problem, homelessness. The early hour meant there was no one around to see the raid and I’m not sure many locals would have cared. Some would have applauded.

You could be forgiven for thinking the end of Camp Freedom may have happened a few months ago, not the early 2000s, as those twin scourges are again dominating headlines. The reaction by then Mayor Walter Gray was to form the mayor's task force on homelessness, work continued under Mayor Sharon Shepherd.

Out of the mayor’s task force came a plan to employ the so-called four pillars approach, to focus on ending public drug use with the pillars of prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement.

The reaction in 2017 culminated in the creation this week of the Journey Home, the City of Kelowna's official homelessness strategy.

Twelve years later, Kelowna is again reacting to the pernicious problem of homelessness, compounded this time by the worsening opioid crisis and death-grip tight rental market.

Some key differences — the four pillars were primarily focused on public drug use, although it acknowledged homelessness as contributing factor.

Journey Home is based on the Housing First concept which sees placement in affordable housing as the primary goal before all else, including sobriety which has long been the main stumbling block to housing addicts.

Will it succeed when the previous effort failed? I want to be convinced but I have serious doubts.

I must admit the dry report on the Journey Home approved by Kelowna councillors this week doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, couched as it is in dry terms of the bureaucratic social worker. Nor does the appointment of a civic planner and a business professor to lead the charge.

Society has long tried to sweep homelessness under the civic rug. One of the most effective ways is to disperse them and their shopping carts and it continues in Kelowna with the use of exclusionary tools like the red zone and Kelowna’s sidewalk sleeping fine.

I get it. No one much wants to see others performing the basic functions of life — eating and sleeping — let alone see them shooting up in a doorway. But don’t expect this is a problem that can be solved and put on a shelf, which is what seemed to happen to the last great civic push to tackle the thorny issue.

Street homelessness, at least in our version of society, is intractable, the culmination of a number of social ills that has most of its roots in mental illness and early childhood trauma.

Simply put, unable to cope with society’s norms and demands, these people quickly turn to drugs and alcohol and are soon on its fringes, for the most part unemployable and — to those who must step over them on the street — unacceptable.

If it were as simple as a math equation — shelter + person = problem solved — it would have been job done long ago.

But simply offering homeless people shelter — and expressing shock and anger when some of them turn it down — ignores the individual, and more importantly, their desires, wants and rights.

When those things bump up against the rules and regulations maintained by social service organizations, it is usually the individual that loses, usually by returning to the street. Outrage is the reaction when a young homeless man refuses shelter in the Kelowna Gospel Mission because he can’t stay out past 8 p.m. How would you have reacted to such a curfew when you were 22?

Puzzlement is the reaction when we see a homeless woman with a dog, knowing it will cause her nothing but problems finding shelter. How would you react if someone wanted to separate you from your beloved pet?

For some reason, many of us who have managed to avoid it ourselves, look down on the homeless and believe they should be punished for their situation.

Homelessness will ever end. Managing homelessness is a cyclical process that must rise and fall to the needs of the community.

Medicine Hat, Alberta is often held up as the shining example of how to end homelessness and if their numbers hold true over time, is an example to be emulated.

While their numbers are astounding — they aim to have a roof over someone’s head within ten days of initial contact — I’m not sure how that would play out in Kelowna’s rental market, where even people with money have a hard time finding housing.

The city has steadfastly refused to become direct operators of social housing, relying instead on support to local agencies through grants and land deals for housing.

The hiring last year of a social development coordinator was a positive step, an acknowledgement of the direct role any city must play in the housing of its citizens. However any effort to ease Kelowna’s homeless situation must be accompanied by annual funding and a permanent place in the city’s senior administration. (The social development coordinator is a term contract.)

It will also require a permanent change in the mindset of the average Kelowna resident, who must begin to view social housing as something akin to a water utility or parks service, a basic civic function deserving continued taxpayer support.

Will it end homelessness in Kelowna? Unfortunately, I’ve seen this movie before and there always seems to be a sequel.

— 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 © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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