British Columbia

Kelowna relocates downtown tent city, moves homeless campers to parks

The City of Kelowna shut down a growing downtown tent city on Leon Avenue and moved the people who had been living there to two parks a few kilometres away, where they are allowed to set up their tents at night. 

'It's not a solution to any problem. It just shifts it over to us,' says business owner near parks

Police and city workers were on hand Tuesday morning at a tent city in downtown Kelowna, B.C., as people packed up to relocate to two parks in the north end of the city. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

The City of Kelowna shut down a growing downtown tent city Tuesday morning and told people who had been living there they can set up camp at two parks a few kilometres away.

Buses and police officers arrived Tuesday morning at the encampment on Leon Avenue to help people move their belongings to two parks in the city's north end, outside of the downtown core, where portable toilets have been set up and storage will be provided for people to keep their belongings during the day.

There has been mounting pressure from downtown Kelowna businesses for the city to find a solution to the homelessness problem, much like other Interior cities that are also grappling with the issue. 

Kelowna's shelters are full, which sparked the city to designate Leon Avenue earlier this year as a space where people could legally set up tents, but the fire department has now deemed the encampment "too hazardous," prompting Tuesday's move to the two designated parks.

People will no longer be allowed to sleep in tents on Leon Avenue. 

Police and city workers helped people living on Leon Avenue pack up their belongings on Tuesday to move to two parks where the city will permit them to sleep in tents at night. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

The early morning announcement was a surprise for people living in the encampment, as well as for people living near the two parks near Knox Mountain, with some saying the city is just moving the problem from one area of town to another. 

"It's not a solution to any problem. It just shifts it over to us," said Brent Smith, owner of the Knox Mountain Market, which is near both parks. 

Camping is now permitted in a designated area at the base of Knox Mountain Park near Poplar Point Road and at a park just off of Recreation Avenue in a fenced in area behind the Kelowna Curling Club.

As of Tuesday evening, no tents had been set up at the Knox Mountain site because everyone chose to set up tents behind the Kelowna Curling Club, which is a kilometre closer to Leon Avenue, said the city's community safety director, Darren Caul.

However, many residents living in the Knox Mountain Park area are concerned about the possibility of a tent city in their local park. 

Nearly 40 people who live in the area showed up Tuesday evening to protest the move, with most saying they are upset by the lack of consultation.

'It's not a solution to any problem. It just shifts it over to us,' said Brent Smith, owner of the Knox Mountain Market, which is close to both parks that people are being moved to. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

People camping in the parks will be required to take down their tents during the day and storage will be provided for their belongings. 

Both parks are about a 30-minute walk from Leon Avenue, where many of the city's support services and shelters — such as the Gospel Mission and Cornerstone — are located. 

The distance from those services is a concern to some of the homeless residents. 

"[Leon Avenue] is the only place where I can get a shower every two or three days, where I can get my meals and stay warm in the wintertime during the day," said Rick Calvert as he packed up his tent Tuesday. On Monday night, temperatures in Kelowna dropped to -8 C.

The city says they moved people sleeping in tents on Leon Avenue due to safety concerns. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

The city and fire department said the move was necessary for safety reasons. 

Kelowna Fire Chief Travis Whiting said in a statement that the close grouping of the tents combined with observed use of unsafe heaters on Leon Avenue was of particular concern. 

The city hopes the parks will provide more space between tents and lower the risk of a fire spreading between them. 

Homeless people set up their tents Tuesday afternoon in the park behind the Kelowna Curling Club after being moved from Leon Avenue. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

There were about 20 people living in tents on the downtown street during the summer, but numbers recently peaked at over 100, said Caul. 

Despite available funding from B.C. Housing, the city still hasn't found a location for a winter shelter. The city said in a release that the law in B.C. requires them to allow people to have temporary overnight shelter in designated parks or public spaces if there is insufficient housing or shelter space for those who are homeless.

Gary Baker, who lived in the Leon Avenue encampment, thinks the move will make everyone safer and it will be helpful to be able to lock up his stuff when he is at work. 

"I think it's for the best," he told CBC's Brady Strachan. "We're going to be farther apart from each other, so if a fire breaks out in one tent we all don't get it. We all got propane tanks in our tents. The whole city block could be gone."

Neighbourhood protest

A combination of security, bylaw officers and RCMP will patrol the area. Two security personnel will be monitoring the sites daily between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m.

Nearly 40 people living in the Knox Mountain area gathered Tuesday evening to protest the city allowing homeless people to set up camp in the neighbourhood. (Chris Walker/CBC)
Some people at the protest brought signs like this one. (Chris Walker/CBC)

Nolan Hyde, who has lived in the neighbourhood for a year and a half, told CBC earlier in the day that the news was unexpected.

"We had people, transient people, all around Knox Mountain Park all summer doing weird stuff. It's just, it's scary," he said. "Everyone's freaked out."

Caul said that the move to the parks is a temporary fix and the city's priority is working with B.C. Housing to build more supportive housing units for 150 more people by 2021. 

With files from Brady Strachan, Chris Walker, Christine Coulter and Sarah Penton

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