The 200-block of Leon Avenue has long been a gathering place for the homeless population, after all it’s where the Gospel Mission, which offers shelter, food, and other services, is situated.
But the executive director says in the nearly two decades that he’s worked there, he’s never seen anything like it.
“The other night we had up to 40 tents and close to 80 people camping out,” Randy Benson told Global News.
The growing tent city has Benson very concerned.
“I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time before somebody is hurt or injured seriously,” he said.
The city block has become so congested, that the homeless, their tents and belongings are spilling onto the street and Benson said that is a safety hazard for not only the campers but the community at large.
“I’m not sure how we came to this point,” he said. “We are seeing the needs of and the number of homeless people increasing to the point where we can no longer handle them in our shelters.”
Benson is also concerned access to Gospel Mission services is being blocked by the tents, making it challenging for clients in wheelchairs and scooters.
“It’s having an impact of course on our clients,” he said. “With the tents on the sidewalk , it’s blocking access for some of the people that want to get day services.”
The city of Kelowna does have a bylaw in place that makes it illegal to camp out on sidewalks yet it’s not being enforced, at least not on Leon Avenue.
The mayor of Kelowna admits the city is choosing not to enforce its own bylaw.
“If we enforce our bylaw, where do people go, that is the key question,” Colin Basran said. “Would we love to be able to say no you can no longer stay on the sidewalk, absolutely we would but then where would they go.”
While Basran said he’s well aware of the dire situation on Leon Avenue, he added there is no overnight fix.
“I’m sorry there is no imminent solution coming at the snap of a finger,” he said.
The mayor said while there’s no quick solution, the city is urgently working to secure a cold weather shelter to get people off the streets.
But in the meantime, Benson believes a tent city needs to be in a safer location, for everyone’s sake.
“If we are going to have a tent city…it’s got to be in a place other than our sidewalks,” he said.
But Basran said moving the tent city is not being considered.
“It doesn’t matter where we move a potential tent city, people will have concerns with it, people won’t like it,” Basran told Global News.
But Benson said safety has to come first and he questioned whether the city would allow a tent city to pop up on any other downtown street.
“I think Leon Avenue is unique because we are the only daytime business so to speak on Leon,” Benson said. “There are nightclubs and there’s nothing else during the day so I think that has meant there hasn’t been that pressure to move this along. I don’t think you would see this kind of action on any other street in Kelowna.”
When asked if the city would be more apt to act if a tent city was on another downtown street, Basran said the following.
“We can all dream up of scenarios of, if it was here the city would do this, if it was there, the city would do that,” he said. “The fact of the matter is it is on Leon, we’re doing the best we can.”