A Vernon councillor has called for the city to look south to see how a community deals with severe problems in its downtown core as a result of those living on the streets.
Scott Anderson, in a social media post, refuted The Morning Star’s recent editorial that “the impact of the street-entrenched population on downtown business can’t be tackled without also tackling, or at least mitigating, the overarching issue of homelessness.”
“The issue is not homelessness,” said Anderson. “Not all homeless people are causing problems. Nor is it drug use. Not all drug users are causing problems. Nor is it mental illness. The problem is…that ‘some members of the street-entrenched population’ are causing problems. … ‘Solving’ homelessness will not solve the problem, nor is it impossible to alleviate the problem without solving homelessness.”
Anderson believes an answer lies 113 kilometres to the south, in the City of Penticton.
“What we need to do is make it apparent to the trouble-makers that Vernon is no longer a free-for-all, and we can do that the same way Penticton did – through enforcement and a zero-tolerance attitude,” said Anderson. “We may not be able to solve the problem completely, but we can make it very, very difficult for people to remain troublemakers in Vernon.”
In July 2018, the City of Penticton announced it was taking a zero tolerance approach to all unacceptable behaviours and illegal activities.
“If you are here to enjoy all Penticton has to offer, ‘Welcome.’ If you are here to break the law, drink and use drugs in a public place, occupy and damage city and private property, your life is about to get complicated,” said the city in a news release. “It is time to take our community back from a small group of people that cause a high percentage of the problems. We encourage residents and visitors to report any activity that threatens the safety and beauty of our home.”
Residents were encouraged to call bylaw services or the Penticton RCMP or 911 for emergencies.
That same month, the city announced it was going to improve downtown lighting. A variety of new lights were installed making Penticton’s downtown Main Street and nearby areas a brighter place to be after dark.
“We lit up the downtown, especially the back alleys where those folks used to congregate,” said John Vassilaki, current Mayor of Penticton.
Vassilaki is a 12-year councillor in Penticton who lost a mayoral bid in 2010 but was successfully elected mayor in 2018, He was not on council when the safety features were introduced.
“All night long, it’s like daylight out there. We spent a considerable amount (of money). I don’t have the numbers but it’s paid off and will pay itself off many, many times over. People feel a lot more secure. The fear factor is not as bad as it used to be in the evening.”
The city received a $50,000 grant to support the creation of a situation table, which brings agencies together to work collaboratively to ensure vulnerable communities get the best care and support needed, as well as prevent crises and reduce the risk of harms, such as crime and overdose.
In December, Penticton announced the formation of a city safety and security task force with a mandate to assist Penticton council and the business community in creating a safe and secure city. The task force meets for the first time in March.
“We are taking a lot of safety steps for our downtown,” he said. “We are starting budget deliberations Tuesday (Feb. 26) morning, and there are many items concerning crime and safety in our downtown core.
“We don’t go after people as such. We go after bad behaviour, that helped a lot more than anything else to slow down what’s been happening downtown.”
Vassilaki described ‘bad behaviour’ as bullying, drinking and shooting up in public.
Penticton’s mayor is not surprised Vernon has been having the same issues, saying “it’s up and down the Okanagan Valley.”
“It’s a very, very small percentage of the homeless or those with mental illness that are causing the problems we have with bad behaviour,” said Vassilaki. “Get rid of the bad behaviour, you get rid of a lot of the problems we’ve had.”