Homeless Stigmatized

Once again I feel a need to speak up about the continued stigmatization of the homeless population in Kelowna.

First, the community shuns these 'undesirables'. We ask them to move along, stop sitting on the sidewalks near downtown businesses and cease loitering in the parks. Next, we take away their shopping carts - often the only way they can keep their few possessions together.

All through it city officials, police and the media refer to a 'criminal element' in our downtown who are damaging the city's reputation as a welcoming resort community and who are driving precious tourists away.

I do not wish to downplay the problem of homelessness or say that a downtown core filled with street people is acceptable, but what I do want to stress is that pushing these people along and criminalizing them is not going to solve the problem.

It is true that many individuals living on the streets of our city commit crimes. There are robberies, assaults and drug deals. Still, these criminal acts are not the primary problem, but are typically a symptom of a life on the street, untreated mental illness or addiction.

Do you honestly think that the homeless guy pushing dope downtown is the criminal element at the root of the drug trade in our city? Drugs are a billion dollar industry in our province and those organizing this industry are not the scruffy addicts lining up for a meal at the Gospel Mission.

Our primary targets in the fight against drugs should be the organized criminals getting rich from it. Again, this is not to say we should turn a blind eye to the more petty dealers in our city, but these are individuals likely trapped in an addiction themselves who are trying to survive. What they need is help not an iron fist.

As I have stated in previous columns, a large percentage of our homeless individuals are living with untreated mental illness. Estimates say that somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent of homeless individuals experience a psychiatric condition, which can make it incredibly difficult to cope with day to day life.

Many of these also struggle with some form of substance abuse. Until these problems are dealt with, there is little hope for these individuals to find stable work or be able to function well enough to pay rent and live as a contributing citizen in our community.

I strongly believe that putting in place more subsidized affordable housing in our city and accessible, integrated mental health and addiction services would go a long way toward decreasing the presence of panhandlers and petty criminals in our downtown. Not only would the city be more desirable to our needed tourists, but we would help many people restore dignity in their lives by giving them hope of a life off the streets.


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