Scrambling every winter to find indoor shelter for Kelowna’s unhoused population is not working, and front-line workers and local politicians alike want change for what they describe to be a “futile” situation.
“We can’t just always be responding with knee-jerk reactions to emergencies when we know winter comes every single year,” Coun. Loyal Woodridge said Wednesday, as snowfall and plunging temperatures created a deadly situation.
It’s a situation that’s been further complicated this year by labour shortages, leaving shelters in the position of having beds but without the staff needed to allow people to use them. In Kelowna, front-line workers have indicated that 150 people are facing a real possibility of spending the entire winter season outdoors.
“Year after year we’re seeing people put into warehouses and we’re scrambling with mat programs and it becomes next to impossible to staff because we’re asking people to work in the middle of the night and support folks (who) have really complex needs,” Woodridge said.
“So we need to really start looking at purpose-built shelters so that the providers can stock them appropriately with professionals who aren’t going to burn out when we’re trying to retrofit temporary solutions like warehouses.”
Wooldridge said that moving to that system would take a political push and also support from “partners that have to fund the capital costs with BC housing.
“As a municipality, we just simply don’t have the money to build shelters like that,” he said.
This week organizations that support the unhoused populations in six cities across the Thompson Okanagan penned an open letter reiterating the call for that kind of support.
“We ask Interior Health and the Province to work with your municipal government and local organizations to develop immediate and long-term housing and recovery solutions to address the humanitarian crisis we are facing,” the letter signed by representatives for the Kelowna Gospel Mission, the Nicola Valley Shelter and Support Society, the John Howard Society of Okanagan and Kootenay, ASK Wellness, Penticton and District Society for Community Living and Turning Points Collaborative Society.
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The letter went on to state that shelters have become a place for hospitals to discharge people who are ill and need respite and health care.
“Our shelters have become a place for police to drop off people with mental illness with an expectation that our support workers should be able to manage dangerous and unpredictable behaviors. Our shelters have been used to hide people out of sight from tourists and businesses,” the service providers said.
“Our shelters have become a place where people languish because there has been no investment in programs, health, skills, wellness planning, and second-stage housing. We have seen that people in shelters not only fail to thrive, but frequently experience further decline in health, substance misuse, and challenging behaviors as the reality of ‘no way out’ settles over them.”
Because of these and many other reasons listed, the people who are working at the front lines “are tired of the futility of winter mat shelters.”
“We are tired of seeing no meaningful outcome to the cycle of indoor cold winter shelter and outdoor summer tenting areas. We are tired of knowing that the brevity of both the investment and the stay means health will not improve, permanent housing will not materialize, and nothing will change,” the letter reads.
Finding a long-term solution to the pervasive homelessness issues that Kelowna is facing is something that the Journey Home Society has been tasked with. It’s come up with a Kelowna-specific five-year plan to address homelessness with a focus on ensuring everyone has a place to call home. It also has landed on a number of units that they said would relieve some of the pressure on the street-entrenched population.
“Since the inception of the development of the journey home strategy there have been 318 units of supportive housing that have been developed locally,” Stephanie Gauthier, the society’s executive said in an emailed statement.
“To our knowledge at this time, there are no new units slated. We provided information to BC Housing back in May to indicate that we need at least 516 units of supportive housing within the next five years based on current need and our data trajectory. This need doesn’t speak to the additional units of ‘rent geared to income’ affordable housing that is of extreme need in our community based on pure affordability for folks who don’t require supports tied to their housing.”
In response to the concerns raised, a BC Housing representative said that they’re listening and working with the province to address what they call “root causes of homelessness” and its many challenges, while focusing on new indoor shelter spaces in the Interior as temperatures continue to dip. They did not mention whether anything was in the works to address the 516 units that are being called for.
BC Housing said that Kelowna continues to provide a combined 268 spaces for people in need at the Bay Avenue, Richter Street, Cornerstone, Kelowna Gospel Mission and Alexander Gardner Safe Centre shelters. Vernon has 86 shelter beds which are offered year-round to the community. Penticton now has 72 shelter beds available year-round with the opening of Compass Centre in April 2022.
In addition to these shelters already in operation, outreach workers are actively connecting with people sleeping outdoors in all three communities to ensure they’re aware of drop-in services and resources, including warm clothes, access to meals and other community-based support services.
“We expect more shelters will open in the coming weeks and months in many communities around the province. We have funding available to open additional shelters, however there are challenges in some communities around identifying suitable sites and securing shelter providers to support this vulnerable population. As we work through this challenging situation, BC Housing and our partners will continue to update the community.
“We realize that although shelters are a necessary part of providing homelessness services, they are only a temporary solution for individuals experiencing homelessness. That is why we have opened 2,125 affordable homes in the North and Central Interior since 2017, including 426 supportive homes.”
BC Housing noted that it’s working with the City of Kelowna to identify future potential housing projects across the housing spectrum.