A Kelowna woman, her boyfriend and another couple were in a park, playing guitar, fixing a bike chain and otherwise just relaxing on a nice day recently, when two officers rode up to them on bikes and told the couples they were not allowed to hang out in groups larger than two people.
The woman, who is experiencing homelessness, said they were just “talking like normal people.”
This event, according to Anna (her real name has been changed to protect her anonymity for personal safety reasons), is reflective of many incidents where the Kelowna homeless population is subjected to unjustified discrimination by authorities and bystanders as they’re often told to scram when they occupy public space.
“They treat you like a piece of s—t. They treat you as if you were nothing. You’re a drug addict, you aren’t worth anything, your belongings are only scrap garbage,” Anna said.
Officials with Kelowna’s bylaw department and Kelowna Downtown on Call, a group co-ordinated by the Downtown Kelowna Association (DKA) that is dedicated to keeping the streets of Kelowna clean, deny the allegations, saying they operate within the confines of municipal, provincial and federal laws, and even ease up in some cases.
Mark Burley, executive director of the DKA, said the Downtown on Call team hardly operates in public areas such as parks.
They monitor the outside of business fronts and do not move people just on the basis of how they look.
City of Kelowna bylaw manager David Gazely said officials “absolutely (do) not” move people unless they are breaking a bylaw.
Several local bylaws provide bylaw officers with the authority to move people if they block a sidewalk, set up an abode or an encampment, panhandle in various public spaces (such as next to an ATM or storefront), are the cause of nuisance in public parks, have open liquor or paraphernalia in public parks or are found littering.
But according to some people on the other side of those laws, that may not always be the case.
“(If someone looks homeless) they’re going to get the attention of bylaws or the security companies or the RCMP way more often than anyone else,” Cornerstone Shelter manager James Smith said.
Being both the manager of a major social service in Kelowna and a person who was once homeless, Smith said he is all too familiar with being moved out of places he should have been allowed to remain.
Harold Smoke, 46, was homeless for at least half of his life before getting housed approximately six years ago.
In his time being homeless, he said he could never sit anywhere without being disturbed.
“As soon as you sit down and they (authorities) enter the park, there will be a family sitting 10 feet away, but they will come straight to us: ‘Oh, you guys can’t sit here, you’re camping.’”
A number of others claim they have been kicked out of parks for raising an umbrella—something families and beach-goers often do.
Most people who experience homelessness said they understand the laws, but feel as long as they are acting respectfully, they shouldn’t be subject to discrimination and unlawful requests to move.
“There are some people, the ones who have hit rock bottom who f—k it up for everybody. They disobey the rules,” said Jared Charles Dayley, a 24-year-old who has been homeless for most of his life.
Dayley said daily run-ins with authorities are often the result of stereotyping, based on a minority of individuals who have made it a homeless staple to double as a drug addict and criminal.
James “Wolverine” Redding, homeless for almost five years, said he doesn’t have any problem with authority figures because they’re “all amicable people.”
“It’s usually the street people who are stuck-up snobs… they’re just denouncing authority. If (authorities) ask you nicely to leave, you just get up and move.”
Gazley has a camera that looks over Leon Avenue. From his office chair, he can see obstructed sidewalks, where someone has attempted to set up a tent or shelter and other non-permitted activity. But the street that Gazley looks at is vastly different in the eyes of someone who lives on it.
A recent UBC Okanagan PhD graduate, who completed her thesis on homeless social capital and its relationship to occupying space, said people who experience homelessness harness a sense of territorial belonging in relation to Leon Avenue.
“They’ll talk about ‘the Kings of Leon’ and a sense of ownership,” Shelley Cook said, adding it almost acts as a retreat for people who experience homeless and feel disconnected from society.
The division between mainstream and homeless culture further entrenches people who experience homelessness.
“For homeless people to get meals, to get support, they have to be behaving in ways that meet people’s expectations,” said Cook.
“(Services) legitimized their presence in public space because they could say, ‘I’m here to reach out for help, so I’m allowed to be here.’”
When people are kicked out of those places—the only ones they feel are left for them—it can be detrimental to their psyche and potential to reintegrate, often losing sense of who they are and further disconnecting from the mainstream, Cook said.
“I think just basic human dignity isn’t being respected,” Cook said.
“People need to have exposure to homeless people in order for the stigma to be reduced.”
For some people who experience homelessness, exclusion only makes them want to stay homeless and fall deeper into that lifestyle.
Anna, along with some of the people who line the sidewalks of Leon Avenue with their shopping carts and dirtied belongings, said the idea of sharing space with “normal” residents can be a pipe dream for some, lost along with their sense of hope and dignity.
“(Society) makes you feel like you are not normal,” she said.
“With time, you are going to start thinking that you are not normal.
“You don’t deserve to just sit beside normal people. You need to go hide somewhere.”
(This article is part two of a five-part series on the differing perspectives of the homeless versus mainstream culture and how that stigma associated with being homeless directly affects their relationships between authorities, public space and themselves.)