Don’t confuse all the homeless with Kamloops’ street menagerie

A few deranged, mentally ill and brain-addled addicts on Kamloops’ streets get a lot of attention. But don’t label all the homeless as troublemakers.

Image: Mel Rothenburger, Kamloops

Kamloops RCMP superintendent Syd Lecky shares in the frustration of residents and business owners who notice the same people committing crimes repeatedly.

“When you have them back on the street in a short period of time, it is frustrating,” said Lecky. “And it does challenge us in terms of being able to manage the risk… whether the risk for these offenders to continue offending, whether it be violence or property crime. It’s really going to create some pressure on us to be able to put an end to that.”

Some of the homeless are just regular folk who choose to live outdoors. I get that.

I first met my neighbour Paul when he was living in a river bank one block from my house in Westsyde. I say “my neighbour” because, except that he lived outside, he was friendlier than some of my neighbours.

Although he lived nearby, Paul was hard to find.

I discovered his campsite when I noticed that the grass had been disturbed down a steep river bank. Curious, I carefully descended the bank and found myself in an almost impenetrable thicket.

A voice came from my left: “Come around this way, it’s easier,” as he welcomed me to his humble abode. Paul, in his forties, had notched a level spot in the river bank and strung a tarp over his shelter; his modest belongings arranged around him. He introduced himself and I sat down to chat.

Years ago, Paul had been a sheltered neighbour just a few blocks away. After his divorce, he lost his house and wandered around from town to town before returning to Kamloops. He was outgoing and happy to tell me his life story. We exchanged cell phone numbers and I left.

When I went back a few months later, Paul was gone.

I understand the appeal of living outside. When I hitchhiked in Australia, I used to set up camp in the bush near small towns. I’d walk into town; my gear stowed in what I hoped would be in an undetected spot.

It was a great way to travel. I’d buy groceries and hang out with locals in the pub.

However, being homeless and living on the street is not so idyllic. It can be a living hell. According to the most recent survey of Kamloops’ homeless, 40 per cent of those surveyed were first homeless from ages 10 to 19. Many of those “aged out” of foster care with few survival skills.

Almost one-half of respondents indentified as indigenous.

Not only do many of these teenagers have few life skills, they can have disabilities such as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). That leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous individuals. They become a resource in the quagmire of street life; in prostitution and dealing drugs.

For indigenous street people who have aged out of the foster care system, the loss of identity is debilitating. They are doubly resentful of a system that is rigged against them –stripped of their culture and exploited by a toxic street culture.

If young people weren’t mentally ill and addicted to begin with, the gritty street life will soon make them so.

Regrettably, low-cost housing will not solve their devastating problems. At one time they might have been cared for in institutions such as Tranquille.

Now their future looks bleak.

BC Housing should value their friends in Kamloops City Council

City councillors support public housing but the recent announcement by the B.C. government took them by surprise. In a press release, BC Housing said that they had purchased the Fortune Motel on Kamloops North Shore.

Fortune Motel, image: Agoda

BC Housing is a crown corporation that finances subsidized housing for low income families.

“What the hell is this?” was a common reaction at City Hall, Councillor Dale Bass told me. The lack of communication represented a “disconnect of our relationship” with the provincial government.

While staff at City hall were apparently aware of the purchase, councillors were not Bass said.

Consultation is needed because Council has plans for the North Shore and BC Housing’s purchases may not fit. Of course, consultation would have to be done in confidentiality since real estate purchases are sensitive.

In a press release, Attorney General and Housing Minister David Eby said that BC Housing and the City of Kamloops will work together to determine a permanent plan for the property. That’s a fine thing to say but just when did BC Housing plan to start working together?

It’s Councillors who take the flak from the public over public housing. Some citizens are “genuinely afraid” of homeless people, Bass said.

Kamloops homeless are often characterized by the actions of “street people” who sometimes appear menacing.

Encounters with mentally ill people can be frightening. A friend of mine was approached by a stranger, apparently in a psychotic state, as she shopped in a thrift store on Tranquille. “You’re going to fucking die, bitch,” he shouted angrily. The verbal assault left her shaken.   

Mental health of homeless people is a problem and it’s exacerbated by their lack of secure shelter. While mentally ill people are more likely to injure themselves than others, that’s little comfort to those are accosted by the unstable mentally ill.

Street people are also blamed for an increase in crime. Yet the perception doesn’t always match reality.

Kamloops RCMP Supt. Syd Lecky told City Council on June 11, 2021, that crime was actually down in some parts of the city compared to last year. Property crime was down in North Kamloops by eight per cent, the same in Valleyview, and up 11 per cent in Westsyde.

But last year was unusual because of the pandemic, Lecky added, and that property crime was up everywhere from 1019.

Homeless people represent a fragile sector of our population.

In a survey done by BC Housing of Merritt’s homeless in 2020, one-quarter reported a brain injury and 70 per cent had two or more health concerns. Seventy-eight per cent suffered from addiction.

In a survey done in Kamloops in June, 2018, one-half of respondents first experienced homelessness as youths. Probably, as in Merritt’s case, many were formerly in foster care.

The profile of homeless people is one of addiction compounded by desperation, mental and physical health. They are often youths thrown out on the streets with few life-skills.

Kamloops doesn’t need a big-stick approach by BC Housing to get affordable housing in Kamloops. Not like that other Interior city, Penticton, where City Council is taking the province to court over a dispute involving BC Housing’s locations.

Kamloopsians sensibly realize that you can’t complain about homeless people on the street while also complaining that they are being housed.