British Columbia

Vernon business owners air frustrations over growing homeless problem

Vernon business owners shared stories of dealing with people living on the streets in the North Okanagan city's downtown at a public town hall Thursday night.

Vernon task force is looking at the impact some people living on the streets are having on local businesses

Some business owners in Vernon say aggressive panhandling, open drug use and prostitution among the city's homeless population is driving away customers. (Canadian Press)

Vernon business owners shared stories of dealing with people living on the streets at a public town hall Thursday night.

Many of the approximately three dozen people who took to the mic aired their frustrations over seeing open drug use, aggressive panhandling and prostitution outside their shops and businesses and their fears that people living on the streets are scaring off their customers.

"I get to work and there's human waste at my back door that I have to clean up before I can even open up the store," said Debbie Kowalchuck of Vernon Shoes.

About three dozen speakers shared stories of dealing with the street population in Vernon at a public town hall on Thursday. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Bob Woodman said the issue of people using drugs in public is worse than it's ever been in the 35 years his family has run an auction house in Vernon.

"There's some of these people that generally need help out there, and we should give them our help. There's others — they don't need our help. They need a kick in the ass is what they need," Woodman said.

"It drives me crazy that it's come this far, and I just think that we need to push them back. They have been pushing us here for years. Let's push them back a little bit and take back our town."

The town hall was organised by the Activate Safety Task Force, set up by the City of Vernon to look at the impact homelessness is having on local business. 

The task force is made up of representatives from the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Business Association, the RCMP, city council, the Tourism Advisory Committee and the city's bylaw department.

Groups that work directly with Vernon's homeless population, such as the John Howard Society of the North Okanagan or the Upper Mission Room Society, are not part of the task force, although chair Darrin Taylor said they will be consulted.

"This is [the business community's] opportunity to describe in some detail to us what they are seeing and what their customers and their staff are experiencing," said Taylor.

"There's a perception that things have deteriorated."

Shop owners in Vernon say aggressive panhandling is driving away business. (Jackie Bellerive)

Business owners have complained of aggressive panhandling and open drug use to the city before. 

Earlier this year, the city banned camping in a downtown park after concerns over a growing tent city..

 'Entrenched in their addictions'

Many speakers at the town hall offered solutions and some urged people in the audience to be compassionate toward people living on the street.

"I see the needs that aren't been met of people —most likely it was their childhood — who are entrenched in their addictions," said Tanya Lipscomb of Mental Illness Family Support Centre.

"I think we can eliminate a lot of the needles that are lying around by setting up a couple of safe places to inject," she said.

The task force will present its findings and possible solutions to Vernon city council in June.


Brady Strachan

CBC Reporter

Brady Strachan is a CBC reporter based in Kelowna, B.C. Besides Kelowna, Strachan has covered stories for CBC News in Winnipeg, Brandon, Vancouver and internationally. Follow his tweets @BradyStrachan