British Columbia

Kelowna business owners say they're leaving downtown because of homeless population

Boyds Tire and Auto Service is the latest in a growing list of businesses that are leaving the Leon Avenue area of downtown Kelowna because of the increasing size of the homeless population.

'It has overcome our ability to be able to work ... so we've had to move,' says business owner

The owner of Boyds Tire and Auto Service in downtown Kelowna says his business is leaving because of problems that have arisen from the tent city that has been growing on the same street. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Boyds Tire and Auto Service is the latest in a growing list of businesses that are vacating the Leon Avenue area in downtown Kelowna because of the increasing size of the homeless population.

Chad Abougoush, the owner of the auto shop that sits on the corner of Leon Avenue and Water Street, says his customers are no longer comfortable coming to his location, which is down the block from a tent city.

"So because of our customer safety and how we want our customers to feel when they come into our facility that's really pushed us to have to move," he told Daybreak South's Brady Strachan.

Abougoush said the dry-cleaning business next door is also leaving because of the problems associated with the number of homeless people living on the street. Others that have left the area include Vancouver Career College and Csek Creative.

'We're definitely very compassionate,' says Abougoush, pictured. 'What's happened is, it has overcome our ability to be able to work and provide a service, and us be able to earn a paycheque.' (Brady Strachan/CBC)

When asked how many businesses have left, Abougoush said, "How many are still here is the real question?"

Abougoush says he could go on "for hours" about the challenges his business has faced, but they include human defecation outside his property, garbage being left behind, and scrap metal being taken from the bin.

Some days he says it takes him and his staff 45 minutes to open and close the gate to where they park on the property because there is so much stuff blocking it on the sidewalk.

"We understand that these people have issues, whether it be personal or mental or anything like that," said Abougoush, whose auto shop will relocate in the spring after seven years operating downtown. 

"But you know what's happened is it has overcome our ability to be able to work and provide a service, and us be able to earn a paycheque. That's what it has come down to, so we've had to move."

Kelowna business owners aren't the only ones who are frustrated with the state of their downtown. Similar issues are arising in other Interior cities, such as Prince George, where one business owner said she put her business up for sale after being assaulted by someone trying to steal from her store.

People living in tents on Leon Avenue say that a lack of affordable housing and full shelters are a big part of the problem. Other barriers some face also include mental health struggles and addiction issues.

B.C. Housing announced there is funding for a temporary winter shelter to be set up with mats to sleep on, however the city still hasn't been able to find a location for one. The Central Okanagan Journey Home Society, which is overseeing Kelowna's five-year plan to address homelessness, says they hope a location is identified soon.

Tents cover the sidewalk of both sides of Leon Avenue in downtown Kelowna. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

In an emailed statement, Kelowna's community safety director, Darren Caul, said that the law in B.C. specifies if there isn't enough shelter space or housing, a city can't ban all overnight parks and public spaces from being used for overnight shelter.

In this case, Leon Avenue has been identified as the spot where a prohibition will not be applied for overnight outdoor shelter.

"We know we need more shelter space in the city, and we must respect the legal rights of people to shelter outdoors when there is no room in the existing shelters," said Caul.

Downtown Kelowna Association 'not happy'

Mark Burley with the Downtown Kelowna Association said he is "not happy" that businesses feel they need to move because of issues downtown.

"We're sad when any business moves out of downtown for whatever that reason would be, but this ongoing issue on Leon is causing this kind of thing to happen the closer you get to it," he said.

Burley would like to see the temporary winter shelter opened and funding from higher levels of government to help with drug recovery programs to make it easier for people who want to get help.

"The province needs to get off their sorry butt and start funding some programs that are going to help these people get off the street," said Burley.

There are currently three provincially funded supportive housing projects under construction, which are expected to provide 100 housing units in 2020.

With files from Brady Strachan and Daybreak South

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