A lot of ink has been splashed on the pages of Central Okanagan newspapers the past couple of weeks on the decision taken by Interior Health Authority to open an outreach service office and dirty needle safe drop-off and exchange on Kelowna’s Leon Avenue two doors to the west of the Kelowna Drop-In and Information Centre. Critics, including several downtown businesses and their trade group, the Downtown Kelowna Association, claim it is ludicrous to add more social programs for the “down and out” and drug-afflicted in the same concentrated area where they’re busy busting up homeless people with drug or alcohol problems using draconian, heavy-handed enforcement measures while verbally championing the so-called Four Pillars approach but coming up far short in terms of actually delivering.
The only thing ludicrous is the absolute sheer lunacy of the DKA’s argument. To Clint McKenzie, Executive Director of the DKA, how would separating the services all throughout the city so that a person has to go to the Gospel Mission in say, its possible new North End location, for a hot meal and shower, then taking a bus back to Queensway and walking multiple blocks to the Drop-In Centre for counseling and Internet access services and then taking several buses out to say, a sparsely populated lot in North Rutland or Ellison to dispose of a dirty needle and get a clean one make sense? Under your proposal indicated in the Kelowna Daily Courier on July 4th, 2005, and previously, that’s quite possible how things could turn out.
The bottom line is: no one wants outreach services and programs designed for the homeless, mentally ill, and drug or alcohol dependent persons in their neighbourhood. However, we cannot be inconveniencing the poorest and most downtrodden persons in society by requiring them to take multiple user-pay services (especially when they can least afford it) to get to all the destinations they need to go to stay healthy, stay alive, and ultimately improve their lives and turn themselves on the path to happiness and wholesome goodness. If we are to achieve the ultimate goal of integrating them into society and making them truly productive, we must learn to integrate the services they need today into our own lives and streets to help them succeed in the future.
By placing this outreach service and needle exchange, presumably to be operated by Interior Health itself and which replaces a previous service on nearby Lawrence Avenue run by the Boys and Girls Club of Kelowna, in close proximity to the Drop-In Centre, the Gospel Mission, downtown church, Community Futures Development office and Come C Restaurant, we keep these services in one well-functioning hub and help to achieve that goal.
Besides, let us not forget that in addition to providing essential health care services through its hospitals and long-term care facilities, another responsibility of Interior Health is acting as regional public health and safety regulator. It needs to ensure the safety of drug-afflicted users by providing essential clean needles to reduce the spread of disease and infection amongst themselves, but also for the general public. IH is making a bold, but necessary, move. I must admit, I was a bit surprised that the stodgy and overly bureaucratic local public health care provider was taking such a proactive approach by providing first-stage harm reduction services to those in need. It’s taken the necessary leadership and first steps. Now it’s time for the City of Kelowna and Regional District of Central Okanagan to show some backbone and follow-through by providing similar-themed services – and cash to keep the programs running. A good place for the two local governments to start would be to provide substantial long-term funding to allow the Iridian Youth Detox Centre, operated by Okanagan Family Society, to re-open and ultimately expand.
To the businesses that are not happy with this outcome and can’t see it in themselves to integrate these desperately needed outreach services into their neighbourhood, I can only pen that perhaps the best thing for them to do is leave the area. They should pack up shop and relocate, if they aren’t willing to contribute to solving the current problems downtown. The truly strong-willed, compassionate, and determined businesses will stay, survive, and hopefully prosper.