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opinion

B.C. Housing Minister David Eby listens during a news conference in Vancouver on May 24, 2019.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Most Canadian cities and towns struggling with the problem of homelessness are trying to find ways to get those living in tents into some form of shelter, temporary or otherwise.

The city of Penticton seems intent on challenging that orthodoxy.

The city’s council is trying to shut down a 42-bed homeless shelter operating out of a downtown church. The mayor, in particular, doesn’t have much empathy for those in need of the facility.

“The more we house that population,” John Vassilaki told the Toronto Star recently, “the more they will come.” Mr. Vassilaki also told a council meeting that the unfortunate souls bunking at the church should “get rid of their addictions and mental-health issues and make them somewhat normal.”

Enlightened is not an adjective that leaps to mind here.

Thankfully, not everyone is as seemingly heartless as the mayor and his colleagues. Council’s decision to reject B.C. Housing’s application to extend its temporary-use permit for the shelter for another year has prompted Attorney-General David Eby to enter the fray.

Mr. Eby is also Minister of Housing. He recently concluded an agreement with the city of Victoria to end homeless encampments in public spaces in the capital. The pact obliges his ministry to provide alternative accommodation for nearly 200 people, and in return, the city is bound to enforce bylaws prohibiting camping in parks.

When the minister looks at the situation in Penticton, he sees a council that wants to kick homeless people out of a shelter on to the street. But he knows that when tent cities become firmly entrenched, they are extremely difficult to take down.

It would appear the folks managing the city of Penticton haven’t looked that far down the road. They seem to be responding to the concerns of local business owners who don’t like the sight of the disenfranchised in our society wandering their downtown streets.

Not surprisingly, the story has dominated the local news in the Okanagan city. The online news website PressProgress, recently published an article that detailed the mayor’s downtown real estate holdings, some of which are close to the homeless shelter. They include a wine bar and a small mall. The mayor told the news organization that his efforts to close down the homeless shelter had nothing to do with his business interests. And, he added, the fact that he’s been “successful” in life shouldn’t preclude him from taking a position on a public safety issue, as he sees it.

I don’t want to discount entirely the pressure that council might be under from elements of the community to do something about the shelter. Penticton is a city based largely on tourism and while last summer was quiet because of the pandemic, traffic is expected to pick up in the coming months.

But the mayor and others around the council table have to do better. If they don’t want a homeless shelter downtown, find another spot for it. But don’t tell these people to just go away. First of all, it’s a terribly insensitive response and secondly, it won’t work.

Others have tried to wish away homelessness and, not surprisingly, it’s never happened. If the mayor wants an even bigger problem on his hands than the one he thinks he has now, then close the shelter and watch the tents go up. And if the city tries to get the police to shoo them away, it had better be prepared to have its representatives in court because that’s where the situation will end up.

Judges in this country have been known to demonstrate enormous compassion for the homeless. I would think the fact that the city created the need for any public encampment by closing the only shelter in town would be duly noted. And it’s difficult imagining any court looking kindly upon that important detail.

The province wants the shelter to remain open another year so it can find more permanent housing with access to mental health and addiction services. It takes time to make that sort of thing happen. It’s time the province should be given.

Those using Penticton’s homeless shelter are there for myriad reasons. The high cost of housing and rent is a factor. There are likely a few who have been caught up in the opioid crisis. Some have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. There isn’t a single one who woke up one day and thought it would be fun to be homeless.

The city of Penticton should be ashamed of the way it has handled this matter. But there is still time to make it right.

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