Protesters gather downtown

Chelsea Powrie

Dozens gathered in Penticton's Nanaimo Square Saturday morning to protest a bylaw that will make it illegal to sit or lie down on certain downtown streets and sidewalks — a law that critics call unconstitutional, and unfairly biased against the homeless. 

Organizer Chelsea Terry was enraged when she heard the news that the bylaw had passed by a 5-2 vote at city council on Tuesday, and immediately started hatching plans for a sit-in at the square, which is often a hub for homeless and transient individuals. 

"It was just frustrating, I see a lot of bureaucracy really screwing people over," Terry said. "These are people that need help the most, which is the most frustrating part."

Terry printed up large signs with the faces of the four council members and mayor who voted in favour of the bylaw with captions like "Does not care about your rights" and "Bylaw amendment: No sitting in council chambers," and rallied other protesters on Facebook. 

They spent a few hours parked in and across from Nanaimo Square, mostly peaceful and quiet, other than a rash of booing when councillor Frank Regehr, who voted in favour of the bylaw amendment, showed up briefly. 

Resident Vivian Short showed up with her own home-made sign, reading "Penticton has made national news (again) for all the wrong reasons," because she feels the bylaw isn't a solution to the real issues plaguing downtown Penticton. 

"I don't believe it's a solution to a homeless and underprivileged problem," Short said. "You're just trying to move people from one area, to where?"

She is also frustrated by people who support the bylaw and seem to lack empathy for the homeless. 

"I just asked a guy, 'So what's your solution?'" she said. "Send them all to concentration camps? It's scary stuff."

The owner of Petrasek Bakery, which shares a wall with Nanaimo Square, has a different view. Jan Petrasek is fed up with the crime he sees daily in the square, and public backlash against his support of the bylaw.

"I invested 20 years of my life, and I don't see [anyone] with a poster that says 'Poor guy, left his family, came here, invest his life here,'" Petrasek said, adding he's tired of the perception that he doesn't care about the less fortunate. He's simply sick of the drug use and threatening behaviour he encounters from those loitering in the square. 

For Terry, who is born and raised in Penticton, this protest was partly about proving to the homeless population that not everyone in the city has turned their backs on them. 

"I think that is the best part about it, that we can actually interact with these people," Terry said. "They're not scary, I think that the rhetoric that the Downtown Penticton Association and the city is spouting about the dangers of this area is false, and I know this for a fact because I've lived here my whole live and seen it with my own eyes."

She is also unhappy with what she characterizes as blatant bias in the bylaw, targeting homeless people. 

"City council hasn't even tried to make it look like it isn't. They're doing as much as they can to get rid of or close their eyes on the homeless population, and these people are part of our community as well," Terry said.

The $100 fine associated with breaking the bylaw is also laughable to Terry, considering many of the homeless would not be able to pay it. 

"It's ridiculous, it's a waste of time, a waste of money, there's so many objections, really."

Protesters plan to be outside City Hall on June 4 when the bylaw goes through its final reading and is potentially adopted. 

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