Blonde Women’s Boutique owner, Raegan Hall has produced one of the most appalling letters to date about the homelessness situation in downtown Kelowna. She’s been running her store on Bernard Ave. for the past 16 years, selling trendy bohemian and classic styles to largely (self-admittedly) Albertan tourists in the summer months. So when the offseason hits, apparently Raegan has time to focus on her business strategy. Public relations and community outreach is a key component to any business, however this time, instead of extolling her company’s value, she decided to strip her neighbours of their’s, and in the process create a sense of hysterical fear for anyone wanting to do business in downtown Kelowna. Reagan is fed up with homeless people, or as she calls them, the “zombie apocalyspe”. Yup, monsters, not human, horrifying.
I imagine her fastening her floppy thinking hat, poised in front of her rose gold iPad, tapping out her entrepreneurial angst against marginalized folks, and righteously hitting that send button. Off it went to a friendly voice, always happy to rail against the existence of homelessness in their midst, Kelowna Now. Kelowna Now, more often than not a mouthpiece for the Chamber of Commerce (ever since Nikki Csek, one its owners was elected to the board – she’s currently the president), is never one to shy away from producing homelessness-bashing content, and they were obviously more than happy to publish this, no doubt elated they’ve finally tapped into a shinier, younger, more popular version of the anti-homeless crowd than the boomer cranks on their Facebook page (Blonde has a big Instagram following overlapping with the white girl/white photography, Jilly-obsessed, “entrepreneurial influencer” set). And it paid off. Raegan’s rancor generated a huge response on Facebook with over 500 responses on their page.
It’s no coincidence that Raegan is a Chamber of Commerce member, and her “solution” here is to relocate the Gospel Mission on Leon, getting the “zombie apocalypse” to move out of downtown. The Gospel Mission by the way has been operating on Leon for 40 years. Moving the homeless out of sight was also a main part of former Chamber president cum mayoral candidate, Tom Dyas’ platform in our last city election – he wanted to ship the homeless to a ranch. The allusions of Raegan’s “solution” and Dyas’ work camp bring up some pretty eerie comparisons – combine this with talk of subhumans/zombies and it sounds like a pretty tidy plan for neo-fascism Kelowna-style.
If we sound a little salty here, it’s because this letter comes on the heels on an unannounced, unnecessary police crackdown on the homeless. Just prior, like minutes, to a new nightclub opening up on Leon, the RCMP evicted people from the street at night, and in the cold. This sudden eviction was in an area that the homeless community had the impression was available for them during overnight hours, until temporary shelter – the current shelters are full – could be provided. With this homeless crisis, along with the city’s huge efforts to tackle it in the news every week, and of course the tents erected to fill the gap before mat programs and supportive housing coming on line, you think someone active in their local downtown business community would be a little more aware of their ecosystem.
And while Raegan has her blinders on, there are efforts being done to make businesses feel more secure. Policing is never a full approach, but Kelowna is spending $150,000 a year hiring specialized private security to patrol the streets. In addition to the private security, two RCMP officers have recently been moved to the area to patrol it on foot. Last year the city hired Former Kelowna RCMP superintendent Bill McKinnon to work with senior levels of government, social service agencies and community organizations to find ways to ensure the public feels safe throughout the city, and to develop recommendations. His full Public Safety Report can be read here.
With law and order mainly set up to address the symptoms of a problem after it has flared up (McKinnon in his report wrote that it doesn’t work – see top of page 5 in the link above), long term solutions addressing causes were announced by the City’s $47 million dollar strategy – the type of commitment that happens when government finally acknowledges the roots and scope of the problem, and not just playing wack-a-mole with its symptoms: jailing addicts, kicking sleeping homeless people out of doorwells on cold nights, driving them off into the hills, or calling the media with cctv footage of undesired people in your store. Raegan needs to read The Journey Home Strategy. This approach does away with a compartmentalized perspective of homelessness as an isolated problem, and instead considers it as part of a wider ecosystem of mental health, drug addiction and some hard material realities. It’s focus is on ensuring everyone has a place to call home, along with coordinated and easy to access system of care. Since inception several supportive housing facilities have been proposed, approved and are on their way to being built.
Since Raegan emphasized that disturbances at her store are a “DAILY” occurrence, out we went to observe a day in the life of Blonde on Bernard Ave. This was on a sunny Saturday, likely a good day for business. Nothing stood out, no risk to life as they claim, just typical shoppers wandering about. Quite quiet really. We work with clients in the area*, and have asked them about the homeless situation in downtown Kelowna and none have expressed any great deal of concern, understanding that dealing with poverty is unfortunately part of the trade-off of setting up in an urban environment.
Businesses like Raegan’s are indeed in a position to help both herself, and someone who needs it. When I ran a storefront in downtown Toronto in a neighbourhood with SROs and parks where homeless people would do drugs, I hired street-entrenched guys for odd jobs like window washing and loading boxes and so did the others on my block – it ain’t much but it’s something, and it makes someone who’s going through shit, feel more valued. So instead of publicly shaming those individuals that may or may not have caused some problems in your store by broadcasting their faces like a mug shot (is there a police report? is this borderline slander?) to Castanet (after the initial Kelowna Now hate letter made the rounds and emboldened others like Black Fish Apparel to pile on) why not engage, talk to, or offer them a job? Isn’t applying entrepreneurialism to public issues the Kelowna way? 😉
This story of the journey of an Abbotsford woman, who transformed from ignorant vigilante offended by homeless people into a compassionate human is really instructive and hopeful. After being asked to attend a committee meeting intended to mend relationships between the homeless and business communities she completely widened her viewport. Why not join a similar program here, maybe talk to the folks behind the Homeless Simulator?
We hold out hope that Raegan’s anger turns to understanding and compassion. A lot of Kelownians are not used to seeing homelessness, but it’s all too common in this hardened world where doors of good employers and affordable homes are closing around us; and the trap doors abound – dangerous drugs pumped onto our streets by gangs, crooked businesses, officials and big pharma. At least denying it is no longer possible, but seriously Raegan, if you say you want to be part of the solution, moving it out of sight ain’t it.
Until you change your bullying ways, I hope no one shops at your fucking store.
*We’re not referring to businesses we review for this website which might want to give off a more polished image and deny any homeless interaction, but design clients, business partners of ours with no need to paper over reality. Interestingly though, the businesses we talked to for website reviews actually were pretty frank about homeless neighbours and universally empathetic – maybe it helps that they were restaurants mostly and so a little more cognizant of the actual vibe downtown after dark than those who prefer outsize hysteria.