MP's remarks were 'uninformed and disappointing': Vernon homeless shelter

This photo of a makeshift shelter of tarps and a sleeping bag was taken in Vernon's Polson Park in February 2014.


VERNON - The executive director of a local organization committed to getting Vernon’s homeless people off the streets says recent comments made by the region’s MP are misinformed, especially considering the high number of deaths on its streets the past two years.

Barbara Levesque, with the John Howard Society, attended a homeless memorial event at which Okanagan-Shuswap MP Colin Mayes stated: “Issues of homelessness are not an issue of government; they are an issue of the community.” The comment received heavy criticism from Vernon mayor Rob Sawatzky, and is drawing concerns from the John Howard Society as well.

In the last two years, 14 homeless people were lost to a variety of causes, including overdose, suicide, health implications and murder. Their faces are fondly remembered on the walls of the Upper Room Mission, a soup kitchen in Vernon that has a commemorative family tree of ‘Our Fallen Leaves.’ It’s a serious situation, one local agencies have investigated, but apparently gone unnoticed by the MP. Despite repeated attempts to contact Mayes, Levesque says the elected official has not gotten involved, and according to his comments, doesn’t believe he ought to.

“He’s just really off base. I don’t know if he knows about that (homeless deaths). I just don’t think he’s very well informed and that’s disappointing to me,” Levesque says. “That’s kind of shocking, especially considering we’re the biggest community in his riding.”

Mayes followed up his initial comment by stating: “I said homelessness is basically not the government’s fault, it is an issue of addictions and mental illness. What I was trying to explain and state... is this is a humanitarian issue, not a government-give-us-more-money-and-build-homes-and-everything-will-be-okay issue.”

But that’s at odds with the results of a $110 million study paid for by his own government. The At Home/ Chez Soi research project tested out the Housing First approach to providing social services. It found that getting people a place to live and then providing addictions and mental health services creates the most successful environment for success. Based on the findings, the federal government put $600 million over five years into administering the approach.

“That’s the good news story I wanted to hear that day, that his government has funded a study that supports every single thing my agency believes in,” Levesque says. “He’s actually speaking to the opposite.”

Levesque is also quick to point out not all homeless people struggle with mental illness or addictions. Seniors, the working poor, and families unable to make ends meet are all in need of support and affordable housing. Affordable housing is defined as adequate shelter that doesn't cost more than 30 per cent of the household’s pre-tax income. A recent report states spending an extra $46 a year per Canadian on affordable housing would dramatically reduce homelessness.

One way Mayes can help is by assisting local groups in navigating federal government funding sources, Levesque says. Vernon is not not a designated community under Canada's Homelessness Partnership strategy so is not eligible to receive funding from that program. Kelowna and Kamloops both access that cash flow. In the same stroke, Vernon is considered too big for the rural and remote program, leaving it empty handed.

“That’s why we need a navigator and that’s the role an MP should play,” Levesque says.

In the winter, it’s not uncommon for the John Howard Society to house as many as 100 people a night in its various shelters. To Levesque, that demonstrates a great need for affordable, permanent housing, not just shelters. But no matter how hard they try, local agencies and municipal governments don’t have the kind of cash to do that.

“If I got to pick my Christmas gift this year, I would wish that we could close down our shelters. I would wish we had enough affordable housing so people could have their own apartments. I wish I had confidence that I have support from my MP in achieving that,” Levesque says.

To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email or call 250-718-2724.

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