West Kelowna blames homeless and seasonal shelter for vandalism spike

The City of West Kelowna is blaming what it calls homeless "transients" and a seasonal shelter operated by a local church for a recent spike in vandalism and property damage.

City officials say public property in the local business district is being broken, damaged, vandalized and even defecated on.

In a couple of extreme examples, city staff said feces was found in public washroom tanks and in stairwells. Staff also say a solar panel illuminating a sign welcoming visitors to West Kelowna was shot at.

"We have seen a large increase in the quantity and severity of vandalism events, coinciding with the presence of transients and the growing number of homeless people," senior staff members wrote in a report presented to council on Tuesday.

"Staff resources are being depleted and parks and public facility maintenance standards have been compromised." 

Mayor says church must 'step up'

West Kelowna Mayor Doug Findlater says the spike in property damage coincides with the opening of a seasonal shelter operated by a local church.

"I think the good intentions of the Emmanual Assembly [Emmanual Church] are giving us some grief in terms of some of the people who are congregating in West Kelowna," said the mayor.

"I think as well, Emmanual is going to have to step up in some way in terms of keeping an eye on the people that they're hosting in their facilitiy."

Findlater notes instances of needles turning up in a local children's park and at an elementary school.

"The idea of just putting [homeless people] up for compassionate reasons and then turning them loose... [the church] is going to have to be part of the solution in terms of stepping up patrols or needle deposit."

'Trying to do our part,' says church

But the Emmanual Church already views itself as part of the solution and not part of the problem.

This is the second winter in a row the church has operated a seasonal shelter offering food and overnight accommodation for those in need. People are sent on their way in the morning with a bag lunch.

"We are just trying to do our part to help address a growing issue," said Jeff Bjorgan, the lead pastor.

"We felt that we needed to do something to get people off the street, especially when it's cold."

Findlater says the West Kelowna shelter is attracting homeless people from Kelowna, but Bjorgan says most of the people he's spoken to consider West Kelowna to be home.

"I've been here for about 11 years and many of the clients we have here, I've recognized them on the streets."

'We need a made-in-West Kelowna-solution'

Bjorgan said his church has been in communication with the city and the RCMP over the last several months, but wasn't aware the church would be implicated in the staff report.

"I knew that the mayor had some concerns with us opening a shelter, but ... we're our own city and we need a 'made-in-West Kelowna' solution."

Mayor Findlater said homelessness and possible solutions will be part of what he calls "considerable discussions" in the months to come. 

With files from Daybreak South and Brady Strachan