City won't axe weekly meals

Penticton city staff would like to see Monday night meals at Nanaimo Square for the homeless not shut down, but rather moved a couple blocks away to the Soupateria, on Orchard Avenue.

City manager Peter Weeber said the discussion on the weekly free dinners is centred around consolidating food service and being able to provide feeding more regularly, more so than any apparent safety issues.

The topic was brought up at the regional district board table on Thursday, where board members discussed potentially approaching Interior Health to find alternatives to the current system. 

"Everywhere you operate... you need to ensure food is safe to eat, so the discussion was trying to get Interior Health to partner maybe, to make sure that food distribution was regulated in some way. Definitely not to discontinue it," Weeber said.

"I did meet with the Parrish who leases that [Soupateria] building to the people who run the kitchen, and they're looking at trying to centralize a feeding area."

Weeber said "it's totally foreign to us as a city to be working on feeding downtown," and said doing so is outside the city's mandate but said they're stepping in to help curb downtown issues — measures that escalated during the summer.

The founder and organizer of "Monday Night Dinners at Nanaimo Square," Kristine Shepherd, said she is open to work with local agencies if it means enhancing food service for the homeless.

"I'm open to anything, they just have to come talk to me... I'm willing to work with anything to get more people fed," Shepherd said.

"The thing is, the homeless and our less-fortunate are creatures of habits, so you can't change things too much for them. Locations and stuff like that. Like I can't miss a Monday or they think you're never coming back for them."

Shepherd voiced some disappointment that she hadn't been consulted about potentially altering how Monday night meals operate, noting she first heard of the discussions from media reports on Thursday. 

She largely dismissed any safety concerns from the weekly meal congregation at Nanaimo Square, saying while some people occasionally show up intoxicated, there's no drinking or drugs allowed. She said in nearly three years of serving the meals, she has had to call police only once; "usually I put my mom voice on and they behave."

On Thursday, Penticton councillor and RDOS director Judy Sentes led the discussion and talked mainly on food safety with the Monday night meals, saying she was asked by Weeber and RCMP Supt. Ted De Jager to bring the discussion forward. Reports on the discussion drew a stir on Facebook, with concerns aimed at Sentes' comments.

"I've never had a conversation about 'we should get rid of downtown feeding.' It was a very small part of a larger conversation about consolidating food access," Weeber said.

"Elected officials are elected to have difficult discussions, and this is a difficult discussion," he added. "It's election time and everyone is happy to take everything out of context... I don't take any criticism seriously from anybody that's on Facebook. The Facebook people, I invite them out to actually be part of the solution.

"It's a little disappointing to see how many residents in Penticton are committed to Facebook but not committed to anything actually productive."

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