I think my first true look into the experience of homeless individuals was when my ninth grade Health class watched Through a Blue Lens, the 1999 film produced by the National Film Board of Canada and the Vancouver Police Department about the life of addicts on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. It still feels so recent in my memory that its production date of more than twenty years ago is startling.
This film was required viewing for most B.C. high school students and served to not only illustrate the consequences of hard drug use, but also humanize and contextualize homelessness and addiction in an empathetic and transparent manner.
As I moved into adulthood, homelessness and drug addiction as an “issue” (I am hesitant to refer to it as such, but this is often how it is framed) became more present as a topic of news, concern, and conversation. People very close to me have come close to and even experienced homelessness. I have, as have many reading this I’m sure, lost loved ones to accidental overdose. On the other side of that, in my experience, the general consensus that I have witnessed involves negative and even derogatory attitudes towards homeless individuals, who are often conflated with opportunists, junkies, and criminals.
I begin on this more personal note to be open about my own bias in writing this piece, as well as to confront the uncomfortable truth that discussions of homelessness and the opioid crisis are often (although are not always, and some argue shouldn’t be) considered to be the same conversation. My own experiences with financial strain and food insecurity have never reached the extreme of losing my home; that, combined with my status as a white university student, places me in a position of privilege which I understand can be contentious within the discourse on poverty and disadvantage in Canada.
As of 2018, there were just under 300 homeless individuals in Kelowna as recorded by The Homeless Hub, a database encompassing 61 communities and recording their data and statistics on homelessness. Roughly 26 percent of the homeless population identifies as Indigenous, despite the fact that Indigenous peoples make up only 6 percent of Kelowna’s population, according to the Capital News. That same article from the Capital News points out the steady increase in these numbers from 2016 to 2018, listing addiction as the top reason for homelessness, along with illness, household conflict, and job loss.
The subtly averse attitude towards homeless individuals which I have observed as the norm in Kelowna was flipped on its head in November of last year, when tensions rose around the existence and location of what is known as “tent city.” In light of the continued increase in numbers of homeless individuals in Kelowna, the area on Leon Avenue where a large population of homeless chose to shelter became too congested and was deemed a hazard by the Kelowna Fire Department. However, this was not before multiple businesses left the downtown area due to “crime, violence, and uncleanliness in the area”, fireworks were shot at the tent city, and homeless individuals protested for better living situations.
The voices that have been heard the loudest, though, have been those opposed to the presence of homelessness in their neighbourhoods and near their businesses. Residents of the Knox Mountain neighbourhood where tent city was relocated held protests against the new spot, carrying signs emblazoned with “not in my neighbourhood” and expressing concern over theirs and their children’s well-being. Shortly before tent city was relocated, local downtown business owner Raegan Hall made a statement to the Downtown Kelowna Association complaining of the “unfortunate residents [who] have taken over.” Her proposed solution? To relocate the Kelowna Gospel Mission away from the downtown core.
The effectiveness of this sort of solution has been attempted, however, as we have seen with the tent city debate; it would seem that while people want the homeless to have a roof over their head, they don’t want that roof in their neighbourhood. This paradox is not new to Kelowna; accessible transitional housing for recovering addicts, proposed for the Rutland area in July of 2019, was met with protests, a petition against it, and countless social media posts asserting that such a building would ruin the neighbourhood and harm its residents. They weren’t against accessible housing, they were just against “enabling” addicts and living alongside them.
No one should feel unsafe in their home, and all citizens should abide by their society’s laws and safety regulations. Trespassing on private property, exposing minors to hard drugs, stealing, and abusive behaviour are very real issues that are traumatic for their victims. Fears of these acts are valid. Yet to assume that because an individual is homeless they will behave in such a manner, break laws, or threaten public safety contributes to a cycle of thinking which alienates those who wish to better their situation. This perpetuates exclusion and isolation, which contribute to addiction and homelessness.
One organization trying to dispel myths and work towards ending homelessness in Kelowna is Journey Home, an initiative that rose out of the issues surrounding tent city. According to their site, “the Journey Home Strategy is Kelowna’s 5-year plan to address homelessness with a focus on ensuring everyone has a place to call home. The goal is to ensure a coordinated and easy to access system of care for those in Kelowna who have lost, or are at risk of losing their home.”
No doubt this will involve some discomfort at all levels of the community. But everyone deserves a chance to have a roof over their head.
Other organizations working towards sustainable solutions to end homelessness: