Why the Downtown Core Should Top the Election Debate

For publication in The Daily News on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008

I worry about our downtown. I walk it every day, for one reason or another. The other day, as I crossed Fourth Avenue, a man was pushing a shopping cart over the crosswalk on the opposite side. Then he jaywalked through traffic and carried on down the street. At the corner of Fourth and Victoria Street, I passed by a man and the woman, both shabbily dressed, coming in the opposite direction, talking loudly, she waving her arms wildly. A little further on down the block on Victoria Street, and another shopping cart full of junk, this time parked by itself. Across the street, a couple more “street people,” just kind of hanging out. After work, in the early evening, I emerged into the back alley to go to my vehicle. Sitting on the curb, a scruffy, long-haired man and a woman who was scratched up and looked like she’d recently had the crap beat out of her. I thought, “I’m not sure these are the kind of people I want to meet in an alley.”

“Hi, Mel,” he said to me as I passed by.

“Hi, how you doin’?” I said, trying to sound friendly.

“Can’t complain,” he answered.

See, you really can’t judge a book by its cover. I get this kind of response from a lot of the street people, the regulars who’ve been here awhile. Somehow, they know who I am, and sometimes they even want to chat for a minute.

They are down and mostly out, but they aren’t the ones we’ve been reading about in the letters to the editor recently. They aren’t out to get anybody, just fend for themselves as best they can.

That guy with the shopping cart, the couple ranting away as they walked down the sidewalk — I don’t know about them.  I do know that, among those on the street, there are a large number of people with mental challenges, addictions or criminal records who need a lot of support to keep going. 

I’ve had more than a few negative experiences with street people, and Todd Shyiak probably described very accurately what went down in front of his shocked family. Suggestions that he should treat it as a “learning experience,” with all due respect, aren’t very helpful.

When former policeman and former mayoral candidate Pete Backus made new for poking his fingers into the eye of a man in a wheelchair, we all start thinking about the homeless and the “riffraff” and what to do about them.

At the end of each day, I point my vehicle down Fourth and cross Victoria to Lansdowne as I head home. It’s usually in the 6 to 7 p.m. time slot, when the feel of the downtown area begins to change quite dramatically — the street people go from being visitors to “owning” the street.

Often I see tourists crossing at the intersections. It’s easy to spot them, and you know they’ve decided to leave their hotel and catch some air by taking a stroll around the downtown area.

I wonder what they think as they see the street people, watch them wandering around, cussing and acting out.

It’s gotten much worse in the past year despite all the efforts of the downtown merchants, led by the Kamloops Central BIA. The summer ambassadors program and RCMP foot patrols certainly help.

Yet, we still have dangerous incidents like the one last May at The Look Boutique, when owner Deb DeLyzer was robbed and her window smashed by three intruders she described as “drug addicts.”

The sad irony is that DeLyzer has raised more than $10,000 for the homeless in Kamloops.

Those who say the answer is to throw more money at housing and social programs don’t completely get it. Yes, we do need to do that, but we also need a better enforcement strategy in the immediate term.

That’s why anyone — incumbent or newcomer — who seeks our votes in the November civic election should first explain how he or she would work to protect our downtown core.

* * *

Every few years, usually around election time, Terry Shaw comes in for a chat. This week was one of those times.

“I’m here to announce I’m running in the next federal election,” he said.

I’ve known Terry Shaw a long time. He has a brilliant mind and an amazing memory for detail, but life has not been kind to him. When he tells you he’s a brilliant mathematician he’s not kidding, and he’s an encylopedia when it comes to Canadian political history, but he’s never been able to cope well with everyday pressures, and his thoughts often become tangled up in one another. He hasn’t had a job since I can remember.

“Good to see you, Terry,” I told him. “How’s your health?”

“My health is excellent,” he declared, looking surprised that I would ask. In fact, his hearing is pretty much shot, and his hands tremble severely, possibly from Parkinson’s. At 68, he looks much older.

Terry Shaw has run for office several times at every level, and he only gets a handful of votes each time. He once complained that even his mother didn’t vote for him. He’s one of those election footnotes nobody pays much attention to, but he has a deep love of politics.

“I have important things to say,” he told me in his gentle, rasping voice. “It doesn’t matter if I get five votes, or 55,000 votes.”

He’s running, he says, because he’s angry that the political parties seem to have forgotten about democracy. Just look at how they’re appointing their candidates.

He will, he said, run for the Social Credit party because there aren’t any Socreds left and nobody will care.

After awhile, I tell him I have to go back to work, and he gets up and shuffles back to the street. And I think that, in his own special way, Terry Shaw adds something to the political process.

About Mel Rothenburger (9652 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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