A Surrey-based grassroots anti-displacement organization teamed up with members of the homeless community in downtown Kelowna on Tuesday, hosting a joint press conference to demand better living conditions for those living in a tent city on Leon Avenue.
Listen Chen, an organizer with Alliance Against Displacement, said homeless leaders from tent cities across the Lower Mainland travelled to the Okanagan to meet with people experiencing homelessness over the past few days.
A petition was launched with signatures collected in support of four demands.
“Homes not shelters, stop bylaw-stealing people’s belongings, stop police entering people’s tents as if they are public spaces, and provide safer heat now,” Chen said.
The resounding message is that a shelter is not a home.
READ MORE: Urgent appeal for winter shelter in Kelowna
“A home is a place where you have dignity, where you have autonomy, where you have a kitchen, a bathroom where your family can visit you and supportive housing doesn’t fulfill any of those conditions,” Chen said.
Deanna Cowens, who resides in a tent on Leon Avenue, is calling for more affordable housing.
“My main goal is to get us all housing. There is a lot of issues out there that we need to address and one of them is housing because it is so cold out,” she said.
“I have two broken hips, I can’t be getting up and down,” Cowens added.
She said the cost of rent in subsidized housing is often too much for people to afford.
Chen and Cowens said a proposed mat program to provide emergency winter shelter is not a suitable option, nor are supportive housing projects.
“It’s still living by other people’s rules,” Cowens said.
In response to the press conference, the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society, which is responsible for executing Kelowna’s homeless housing initiative, said having an “outside group” descend on Kelowna is a “frustrating distraction.”
“It is more important than ever to stay the course and focus our efforts, continuing to work collaboratively towards the development of community-based solutions to our issues,” said board chair Dr. Kyleen Myrah in a statement.
Myrah said there is an evident need for a temporary winter shelter program in Kelowna and it recognizes that the situation on Leon Avenue is neither acceptable nor sustainable.
According to regular and joint head counts by the City of Kelowna and the Downtown Kelowna Association, there are between 60 and 80 people sleeping on the streets every night.
Part of the reason is the void left from the former Inn from the Cold program.
The 40-bed shelter, in the city’s Capri area, was forced to shut its doors earlier this year as the building was torn down for re-development.
However, the municipal and provincial governments are making progress in Kelowna, according to the society.
Since 2018, over 130 individuals experiencing homelessness have been housed.
The society said there are also three provincially-funded housing projects with supports in development that will provide another 100 units for members of the community in 2020.
— With files from Klaudia Van Emmerik