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Kelowna homeless centre prepares for vacuum left by its closure

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 | 5:00 am

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Selena Stearns and staff the DI have begun winding down operations. (file photo)

By Kathy Michaels

Along with her staff at the Kelowna Drop In Centre, Selena Stearns has helped keep a lid on the activities along Leon Avenue for the better part of a decade.

Known for being tough, but fair to those who seek her help, she’s also developed a reputation for being a thorn in the side of those who want to keep the area a drug dealing corridor.

“I couldn’t even count how many low level drug dealers have issued threats after I’ve called the RCMP,” she said, pointing to water-guns under her desk and adding wryly, “I keep these super-soakers here for a reason.”

Watchdog isn’t on Stearns’ business cards but her job, just like the Drop In Centre itself, reach past what can be seen at first glance and its impending closure is causing some to wonder what will happen once it’s gone.

“This centre is about more than the homeless population of Kelowna,” she explained, adding  it’s oftentimes judged incorrectly as a destination for those who deal or use drugs openly.  “It’s about our community and if it goes away and we’re not here to monitor what goes on, those other people will come back.”

While there’s little to control the activities on Leon once the centre succumbs to its financial losses at the end of March, Stearns is frantically trying to find a way to soften the blow to her clientele who are coming to grips with the news that their slice of stability will be taken away when its doors close for good.

“My clients are worried, they’re losing a connection that has taken years to build,” she said. “It’s taken years for them to trust people the way they do, and they need consistency.”

The centre’s full time social workers have active caseloads of 220 to 230 locals, for whom they do everything from appointment reminders to completing government paperwork.

Each client will have to be matched with a new social worker, and that’s something Stearns believes is causing others in her industry a great deal of stress though they’re unlikely to admit it.

Their imminent departure is also causing a fairly strong reaction among those at area businesses.

Many refused to speak on the record, saying only that they believed it was time to clean up the neighbourhood and the centre’s closure would go a long way in completing that aim. Others spoke highly of the work done.

And reports of a mixed reaction was of no surprise to Stearns.

“Businesses either love us or hate us,” she said. “But I’m not here to make friends. People who don’t want to see past the surface stuff, that’s their problem. We build connections and friendships, and we get to know these people.”

While their offices are blocks away on Bernard Avenue, the Downtown Kelowna Association has worked with the Drop In Centre for years. Their Downtown on Patrol crews help make connections between those who are on the street and various service providers, among which is the Drop In Centre.

Noting that many member businesses have yet to learn of the centre’s closure, the DKA’s John Perrott said he’s optimistic about how the loss will be played out on Kelowna streets.

“I had conversations with other service providers when we heard about it closing earlier this year,” he said. “They’re confident the services that are necessary to treat people — such as Canadian Mental Health and the Gospel Mission —will be able to meet the needs of the community.”

For their part, the DKA’s patrol crew will do what they can to make referrals when the occasion arises, though Perrott doesn’t anticipate that will occur any more then than it does now.

“Last year when the centre was closed for renovations, or over holidays, I didn’t hear of more incidents or any problems,” he said.

Tomorrow at 1 p.m., Stearns’ contemporaries from other agencies around the city will be meeting with the media at the Gospel Mission to inform them of how they anticipate the changes will play out.

Stearns wasn’t alerted to the meeting until after it was scheduled and the media had been invited.

Kelowna homeless centre prepares for vacuum left by its closure4.054

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