Longtime Kelowna resident Rick W., 60, has seen the homeless population grow in Kelowna and after seeing something last week, he summed up his opinion about the vagrant population.
He was driving across the bridge from West Bank and looked at the Welcome to Kelowna sign. Just beneath it were items he thought were garbage, stuffed into a mangled shopping cart with overhanging fabrics and tarps.
“It’s an embarrassment of what we have here,” he said.
Many times, when people who experience homelessness get kicked out of public spaces, they are told to move due to the accumulation of their belongings.
An RCMP officer removed four people from City Park on the afternoon of Aug. 6. They had shopping carts, bikes, a mattress of sorts, blankets, mats and a number of other belongings. The officer said he asked them to move because they were setting up what he called an abode, which is prohibited under city bylaws. He defined an abode as something with an overhang and some sort of ground covering.
In contrast, when the officer was asked how he would respond to a family on the beach with an umbrella and towels, or blankets on the ground, he said he would speak to them to ensure they were not planning to construct an abode, adding there is no selective discrimination against the housed and the homeless.
“The rest of the City of Kelowna has expectations and I don’t necessarily think that they want to see the reality of what it is here,” city bylaw manager David Gazely said.
People who live on the streets have said that often their belongings are collected by authorities, thrown into the back of bylaw vehicles and taken to storage units. Other times, they say, they have had their items searched and sometimes discarded, or held for 30 days before being thrown out—if bylaw officers deem that necessary.
Dan Palmer, who is homelessness, spoke about how the homeless in Kelowna are treated as he sat on Leon Avenue, surrounded by a number of items including various tools, string, a lighter and an extra T-shirt. He said if the owner picks up his or her possessions before the 30-day mark, it will cost them $40.
“(Bylaw officers) come along and take all of your stuff,” Palmer said. “Anytime we get a tiny bit ahead, they take it. It’s like they are doing it on purpose.”
Others on the street confirmed it happens frequently, if not routinely. But Gazely said bylaw services only takes a person’s belongings if they are left unattended, are potentially stolen or have been repeatedly been left, blocking the sidewalk. He said hardly, if ever, do bylaw officers charge a person who experiences homeless the $40 pick-up fee.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this because we get it. All their worthwhile or worldly possessions are in one thing,” Gazely said.
“I never thought that bylaw officers would become garbagemen, but we are glorified garbagemen at the end of the day.”
Often, bylaw officers are called by shelters and nearby businesses to come and clean up, Gazely said.
The prominence of shopping carts among the homeless community is related to different issues, Gazely said, including theft, occupying space and the city’s overall appearance—they don’t look very pretty against the planters of roses in City Park.
At 7:30 a.m. every morning, Ron Beahun’s Downtown on Call team—part of the Downtown Kelowna Association—walk through the downtown core and provide a courtesy wake-up call before many Kelowna residents are even awake.
The “Cherries,” as they are referred to by many on the street, are greeted with groans, moans and promises they’ll get up. Many know the Cherries by name and vice versa—both sides understand the homeless can’t be there.
People with shopping carts must then re-pack their belongings and push their wheeled storage units to their next location, before getting kicked out again.
For local homeless woman Anna—not her real name—the process is exhausting, relentless and takes her farther away from the mainstream.
She said she and her friends were told not to bring their shopping carts into parks this summer because of their staining appearance on the spick-and-span landscape. She added her belongings have been taken in the middle of the night by bylaw officers in the past.
“We can’t put a shopping cart in the street because it is not a vehicle,” she said. “We cannot put it on the sidewalk because it obstructs the sidewalks. We cannot come into a park. We can’t go to any private parking lot”
Shopping carts cause for further displacement of people who experience homelessness, according to a recent PhD graduate from UBC Okanagan who wrote her thesis on people who experience homelessness and their relationship with public space and social capital.
Shelley Cook, who also ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in Kelowna-West in the last two provincial elections, said it adds to overall discrimination.
“(Shopping carts) immediately identify them as (a) chronic homeless person,” Cook said.
People who experience homelessness, like many, have possessions they like, Cook said. They have clothes and memorabilia and sentimental items.
Residents like Rick understand the homeless population’s right to be in public spaces, but he wants the city he has lived in for more than half his life to stay clean.
As for the those on the street, they just want somewhere to go.
“There’s nowhere we can go,” Anna said. “Nowhere.”
(Part three of a five-part series on the homeless and how the stigma associated with being homeless directly affects the relationships between authorities, public space and themselves.)