Moments before about 100 people gathered out front of a closed Kelowna city hall Monday evening to protest, city council concluded its weekly public meeting by quietly passing one the most hotly contested bylaws in recent city memory.
With no discussion, council voted unanimously to approve an extension to an existing bylaw that bans sitting or sleeping on city sidewalks between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. The bylaw now bans such action at anytime of the day or night.
Outside, the protesters booed when told the bylaw had received fourth reading and had been passed.
They want the city to rescind the entire ban, calling it is a “legal whipping” of the homeless here. These are among the city’s most vulnerable, say the protesters, people who do not have anywhere else to go.
Several said that Mayor Colin Basran and his eight city councillors should be ashamed of themselves for supporting the ban.
“Why am I so upset over something the city says is a practical strategy?” said organizer Katrina Plamondon. “Because this is a violation of dignity and of human rights.”
She accused council of “talking out of both sides of its mouth,” by earlier in the day endorsing creation of a long-term strategy to help the homeless, while at the same time making, in her words, it a crime to be homeless. Violation of the sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk ban carries a $50 fine.
Wile Basran has repeatedly said city bylaw officers will not be out 24/7 looking for people to ticket under the bylaw, he has called the extension of the ban another tool to help deal with homelessness here. Adding that the city is doing plenty of other things to help people on the street, including getting more low-cost housing built and having outreach and mental health workers accompany bylaw officers and local police officers on patrols to help get people found living on the street help from local social service agencies.
He has said the ban extension was complaint-driven and residents and business owners alike have complained to city hall about “sidewalk obstructions.”
Earlier in the day, during discussion about council’s endorsement of the planned homeless-serving systems strategy, Basran admitted he did not see the public “backlash” coming over what he described as a “minor bylaw change.”
But while the mayor was booed when spoken of at the protest, at least one organizer said he believes Basran is a compassionate person and he appealed for that compassion to override the new bylaw.
Robert Mellalieu, a former federal Green Party candidate on the Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, said Basran’s compassion appears to be at odds with his actions in supporting the ban extension.
The protesters on Monday evening called on the city to help find beds for Kelowna’s homeless instead of banning them from the sidewalks.
One woman in the crowd shouted out that the bylaw was being introduced just as the local Gospel Mission and the Inn From The Cold shelters had announced they are full.
With unseasonably cold weather expected over the next week, concern has been raised about the welfare of those on the street at night in the city. Temperatures over the next few days are expected to be below 0 C during the day and night.
The protesters, in addition to sitting on—and partially blocking—the sidewalk outside city hall to defy the new ban Monday were also encouraged to write messages opposing council’s action in chalk on the sidewalk.
Some of the messages read “Shame on you Kelowna,” “Beds not fines,” “My Christmas wish list: Homes for everyone” and “Trump move for sure,” a reference to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
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