British Columbia

Penticton homeless advocates protest shelter closure

More than 100 people gathered in a Penticton park on Friday and put up about a dozen tents to protest a city council decision to close an emergency shelter at the end of the month.

Protesters put up about a dozen tents in park to illustrate potential consequences of council's decision

Homeless advocates set up a tent city in Penticton's Gyro Park to protest a city decision to close an emergency winter shelter. (CBC News)

More than 100 people gathered in a Penticton park on Friday to protest a city council decision to close an emergency shelter at the end of March.

Organizers set up a pop-up tent city at Gyro Park intended to illustrate the potential consequences of closing the shelter. 

One woman sitting among the dozen or so tents said the protest was personal for her. 

"When I was young I was in a homeless shelter for two years. I am basically what I consider a success story," said Lee,  who declined to share her last name.

"I've experienced homelessness, the ugliness, all the emotion, the anger. And I'm here to support the people in my community because I believe closing this place down is a big mistake, because this community has a big problem with homelessness right now."

Lee, who says she once lived in a homeless shelter and declined to share her last name, wants the Penticton emergency shelter to stay open beyond the end of the month. (CBC News)

On Tuesday, Penticton city council unanimously rejected a request to extend a temporary-use permit that would have allowed the Victory Church to continue operating an emergency winter shelter in its basement. 

"Yes, traditionally, historically, winter shelter has ended at the end of March. That is not untrue," protest organizer Desiree Franz told Daybreak South host Chris Walker. "However because we're in a pandemic, B.C. Housing has extended its funding, and the logistics are there to keep running it. So I don't understand why they would vote it down."

Franz, a worker at a supported housing facility run by B.C. Housing, says as many as 42 people living at the shelter will have nowhere to go once the shelter closes. 

In a statement to CBC News, B.C. Housing said it "is not involved with the protest in Penticton and Desiree Franz is not a direct employee of B.C. Housing."

166 people waiting for housing

B.C. Housing says 166 people are on its waiting lists for housing in Penticton, with 80 per cent of them having lived in the Okanagan city for more than five years.

Penticton Mayor John Vassilaki has called for a third-party audit of B.C. Housing's existing facilities and programs in the area and is calling on the provincial government to do more. 

"We haven't created any emergency. The emergency has been around for years," he said. "It's up to the province to come up with a long-term plan that will help these folks out so they can be safe, not only wintertime, but all year."

On Tuesday, Housing Minister David Eby threatened to send 1,000 tents and sleeping bags to the city, sparking the image of an Okanagan tent city.

For protesters like Lee, the escalating political battle is overshadowing the need for immediate action. 

"If I didn't walk through those [shelter] doors that day I know I would have been dead because of my addiction" she says.

"Those people, they were me. Not long ago, they were me."

With files from CBC's Daybreak South with Chris Walker


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