Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen directors may soon be approaching Interior Health to find an alternative to Monday night meals given to the homeless in Penticton's downtown.
Penticton councillor Judy Sentes, who is vice-chair of the Okanagan-Similkameen Regional Hospital District, explained to the board that "a group of well-intentioned people" are providing dinners one night per week. The free meals have been given out at Nanaimo Square for more than a year.
"That has caused concerns about safety. So the issue is, where is (Interior Health's) food control?" Sentes said.
The board floated the idea of having IH food inspectors intervene, who could potentially shut down the service, but they didn't commit to going ahead with that request.
"I'm a little concerned if we bring IH in. This food is really necessary in a lot of ways," Penticton Coun. Helena Konanz said. "If they start clamping down on food preparedness, these people won't get nourishment and the food that they need. I don't know if we want to open that can of worms."
"We've been asked to," Sentes said in response, noting the inquiry came from RCMP Supt. Ted De Jager and city manager Peter Weeber. "Because it transitions into being a safety factor for the rest of the community ... (IH) may feel they don't have any jurisdiction, but our people in authority want to know."
Sentes went on to say the hope is IH would "use the safety of the food as a mechanism to get to the fact that it’s drawing people into our downtown core and creating an issue.”
She also offered the idea that free meals might be better off served from a food truck that moves to different locations each week, as opposed to the same location downtown.
The RDOS hospital district will meet with IH on Oct. 30 in their bi-annual meeting to address issues in the area. Apart from downtown dinners, the board also plans to discuss ways to deal with "inappropriately discarded needles" around Penticton.
In its agenda, the RDOS said that IH's harm reduction strategies are contributing to the problem, and said giving out retractable needles in kits supplied to drug users could help curb the issue.
"We understand it's more money, but in the long run it would help with the problem of needles on the ground," Sentes said.
Penticton Mayor Andrew Jakubeit also offered that "some sort of accountability" for users would be helpful to reduce the amount of discarded needles, "then the users are more likely to collect them themselves."
"Some regulation on the access to needles... would be far preferred to indiscriminately just helping people support their habits," Area D director Tom Siddon added. "How are people ever going to decide they need to deal with this problem if we just keep giving them needles?"