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‘They’re still human beings’: Homeless say police kicked them off Leon Avenue night of club opening

Click to play video: 'People experiencing homelessness question if displacement due to nightclub opening' People experiencing homelessness question if displacement due to nightclub opening
WATCH: A woman who goes by the street name "Mama De" said people experiencing homelessness and sleeping in tents on Leon Avenue were asked to leave on Friday night, around the same time a new nightclub opened across the street. – Oct 27, 2019

Leon Avenue is a place reminiscent of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, albeit on a smaller scale.

It is the epicentre of the homelessness and drug overdose crisis in Kelowna, B.C., where people with nowhere else to go loiter on the sidewalk and pitch their tents in close proximity to resources and shelters like the Kelowna Gospel Mission.

But it’s also part of the city’s downtown entertainment district, where nightclubs come alive as the sun sets and party goers flock into the early hours of the morning.

Click to play video: 'Homeless people told to leave Kelowna’s Leon Avenue night of new club opening' Homeless people told to leave Kelowna’s Leon Avenue night of new club opening
Homeless people told to leave Kelowna’s Leon Avenue night of new club opening – Oct 27, 2019

These two separate worlds may have collided on Friday night.

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READ MORE: Controversial homeless shelter in downtown Kelowna to stay open indefinitely

Some people, who are currently experiencing homelessness, told Global News they were “kicked out” and displaced on the same night the new Gotham nightclub opened its doors for the first time at 275 Leon Avenue, formerly the Level nightclub.

Click to play video: 'Sgt. Greg Woodcox on homelessness on Leon Ave.' Sgt. Greg Woodcox on homelessness on Leon Ave.
Sgt. Greg Woodcox on homelessness on Leon Ave – Oct 23, 2019

A woman, who goes by the street name “Mama De,” said roughly six RCMP vehicles arrived and officers abruptly told people they had to leave.

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“It looked like they were ready for a riot, because they were all standing there waiting for somebody to start something,” she said on Sunday.

“They just started yelling, ‘Come on you guys, you’ve got 10 minutes to get off the street, pack it up, let’s go, if you don’t we are going to throw away your stuff and arrest you.’”

She said the street-entrenched population in Kelowna has nowhere to go, as shelters are full.

READ MORE: Frustration boiling over Kelowna homeless encampment

“We’re not bad people, we are just normal people who want a place to live,” she said. “I was devastated. This is what I’ve gotten used to.”

The woman said they were given no advanced warning of the looming overnight displacement.

Click to play video: 'A Kelowna man living on the streets says he much more than just a homeless person ahead of World Homelessness Day' A Kelowna man living on the streets says he much more than just a homeless person ahead of World Homelessness Day
A Kelowna man living on the streets says he much more than just a homeless person ahead of World Homelessness Day – Oct 9, 2019

“It would have been a lot different if they talked to us like normal human beings, not like some sort of animal or whatever they thought we were,” she said.

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Jess Austin-Wilson, who spends his nights sleeping on a cot at the Gospel Mission, said his friends were told to leave Leon Avenue on Friday night.

“Cops and the local RCMP came and pretty much cleared everybody out, told them to beat it, just because of the new nightclub that opened,” he said.

“A lot of people, that’s all they have right now is to pitch a tent near the shelter. At least then they’re here, when they’re on this block, they have staff from the Gospel Mission who can come around and check on them and make sure no one is overdosing and dying in their tents,” he added.

Click to play video: 'A new homelessness simulator initiative hopes to give Kelowna residents a small taste of what it’s like living on the streets' A new homelessness simulator initiative hopes to give Kelowna residents a small taste of what it’s like living on the streets
A new homelessness simulator initiative hopes to give Kelowna residents a small taste of what it’s like living on the streets – May 28, 2019

Austin-Wilson said those experiencing homelessness are accustomed to moving three days a week during street cleaning, but it’s unprecedented for authorities to force people out in the dark and cold.

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“When you are putting underprivileged, less fortunate people who are at risk of death and who have fallen through the cracks, and then they feel like, ‘Oh, I’m getting kicked out of my only spot where I feel safe,’ then they don’t want to trust anybody,” he said.

Those who spoke to Global News said the City of Kelowna’s bylaw department got involved and people were allowed to return the following day.

When reached for comment on Sunday, bylaw officer Will Scott said “RCMP had some interaction with them the night before last,” but directed comment to the Kelowna RCMP.

READ MORE: Even the homeless are shocked by number of Kelowna homeless

Kelowna RCMP said officers responded to the 200 block of Leon Avenue around 8 p.m. Friday after officers expressed concerns about tents blocking the area.

Police located over 20 tents with 60 to 100 people blocking the right-hand traffic lane, according to Cpl. Meghan Foster.

“Leon [Avenue] is home to Kelowna’s night life and is frequented by many people attending the area on foot, or by taxi,” Foster said in an email late Sunday afternoon.
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“The location of these tents posed serious safety concerns to pedestrians, drivers and to the people occupying those tents.”

Foster said the detachment’s first priority is public safety.

“This priority prompted us to clear the area of the occupied tents blocking the street,” she said.

Foster said people affected by the evacuation left the area without incident, no arrests were made, and it took over an hour to clear the street.

Global News has also reached out to the nightclub’s owner for comment.

—With files from Jules Knox 

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