While some shopkeepers are concerned about crime in Kelowna’s downtown, one store owner says she’s found little to complain about.
Linda Smith has owned and operated The Water Garden Boutique on Ellis Street for the last 20 years. During that time period, she’s had very little problems with crime and wants to address the fear around the homeless in the downtown area.
“The area around us has grown up in such an amazing way; we have restaurants, we have fun bars, we have a lot more shopping and along with that there has definitely been a (change). There are more homeless people, and I think there’s a lot of fear that’s just unfounded,” Smith said.
Smith said that she’s had little issues with the city’s homeless population and pointed out that there have been times where she’s been extended a helping hand.
“I was out at the dumpster and I had my hands full and it was near an alley and I’m not afraid to go out there at all, and the guy said ‘let me help you with that,’ and opened the lid for me,” she said. “They’re just people and there’s so much fear and I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate.”
Smith’s shop was broken into eight years ago, but she’s had little issues otherwise.
“I’ve never been threatened, my staff and I work alone here 90 per cent of the time and (we’ve been) fine,” she said.
She’s in favour of Kelowna’s supportive housing project.
“There’s a lot of people that need housing, and the first thing we can do to help them is put a roof over their head,” she said. “I mean it’s where we’re at in our society, we can’t just push it under the rug and say ’not in my backyard.’”
“For people to be afraid to come to downtown is going to make matters worse.”
Over the past seven months, the city has been collaborating with BC Housing and non-profits in the community to house Kelowna’s homeless as part of its Journey Home Housing initiative.
Recently, a new supportive housing project, Heath House, opened on Harvey Avenue North near Leathhead Road which houses 50 formerly homeless people. It is operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Hearthstone, another housing project located on Commerce Avenue which opened in October, and Heath House are both BC Housing projects.
Another housing initiative, approved by council in January for Agassiz Road, was met with controversy as some residents in the area were concerned about drug use. The project will provide 52 units for homeless people.
In July, Vancouver Career College cut its courses and moved from its location on Pandosy Avenue in January, citing the homeless shelter across the street was causing concern for its students’ safety.
However, Lance Kayfish, director of community safety with the City of Kelowna, said work needs to be done to address the stigma around homelessness.
Housing first projects have an advantage over shelters, as they allow individuals to have their own space, which gives them a sense of security and allows them to take pride in something, he said.
It’s often difficult for people to better themselves in a shelter setting when they’re concerned about day-to-day activities while battling mental health issues, personal issues or other challenges, Kayfish said.
“How does a person who is dealing with opioid addiction that wants to overcome that, how do they start to rise to that challenge when they don’t even know when they want to brush their teeth in the morning?” he said.
In November, a report was released by retired RCMP Supt. Bill McKinnon, who was asked to look at ways the city could address downtown crime.
The report outlined the Journey Home Housing strategy, as well as other “quick fixes” such as more sidewalk cleaning, more garage bins downtown, portable toilets and reviewing the city’s needle pick-up program.
Repeating a line he used in the past, the former 40-year police officer said the city will not “arrest its way out of the problem.”
Kayfish said with the number of shelter beds concentrated in the downtown core, there have been unintended consequences.
He said they also haven’t seen a spike in crime around the Commerce Avenue housing complex, which has 46 units.
The aim of the Journey Home initiative is to have supportive housing units throughout the city, Kayfish said.
“Things aren’t perfect, part of the work that needs to be done is building understanding and addressing stigma because somebody is homeless and looks like they’re homeless doesn’t mean they’re threatening,” he said.
There are a number of contributing factors that lead to homelessness in the city, which he pointed out is not a Kelowna-centric concern.