June 11, 2015 - 7:30 PM
“I HAD TO ASK FOR HELP. IT WAS EITHER THAT, OR I’D STILL BE HOMELESS”
VERNON - For the last 10 years, Roy You has lived on and off the streets. He travelled far from the Splatsin First Nation reserve where he grew up, searching for work in different places, never staying long. Many nights he slept with his back up against building vents, shrouded by a tarp to hold in the heat. Faking an address by whiting out old mail became routine when applying for jobs, as did cleaning up in rivers and gas station bathrooms before work. When he did have a place, it wasn’t always healthy or safe.
After a recent stint working in the oil patch, Roy, 31, decided he was ready for a change. Things weren’t working out, and he was committed to moving his life back home to Enderby, getting a house, and reconnecting with his dad and siblings.
“That was the goal over a year ago, to get everything settled. That’s what I thought was going to happen,” he says.
It ended up taking him until this past April to find somewhere safe, clean, and away from drugs and violence, and he didn’t get there alone. It wasn’t until after he spent a year living in a house that 'should have been condemned' on the reserve in Enderby, getting sicker and sicker from black mould, that he wound up in the hospital and met someone from the John Howard Society in Vernon.
“If it wasn’t for certain people I’d call heroes, I’d be homeless again,” Roy says.
With no savings and relying on income assistance to get him by, You couldn’t find what he wanted for what he could afford, not alone anyway.
“Housing in Enderby is a nightmare. The pricing is ridiculous and the units are filthy. That’s why I knew I had to move to Vernon,” he says.
But the landscape wasn’t much different in Vernon. During a three week stay at Vernon Jubilee Hospital, Roy headed out in his wheelchair to check out prospective apartments. Everywhere he looked, conditions were either unhealthy due to mould, or the atmosphere was too traumatic due to drugs and violence. In all, during his hospital stay and before, he spent months trying to find a safe place to live in Vernon.
“I didn’t want any more trouble in my life with drama, people fighting. I wanted peace,” Roy says. “After getting out of the hospital, I’d had enough of what was happening in my life. Because of my health, I was more interested in getting myself straightened around so I didn’t have to do this again.”
SHORTAGE OF AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN VERNON LEAVES MANY ON THE STREETS
The agency that helped Roy find a safe, affordable place to live has done so for as many people as it can, with the resources it has. Unfortunately, that’s not everyone.
Shelley Kiefiuk with the John Howard Society sees numerous people every month — families, couples, seniors, and individuals — who need help finding affordable housing. The society works with a network of landlords and a limited inventory of units known to be safe and clean in the city to help people find homes.
“I’ve had months where depending on the vacancy rate, people come in looking for something and I have nothing. I literally have no words. It hurts my heart to have to say to someone who walked into my office in crisis, upset, and crying, ‘I have nothing for you.’ Try me again next month,” Kiefiuk says.
Since January 2015, an average of 20 people a month were successfully housed through the society, Kiefiuk says. But due to a major shortage of affordable housing in the Vernon area, many more were left homeless. The society houses approximately 100 people a night in its shelters and transitional housing beds, and estimates at least 300 others are without a stable home, couch surfing or living in dangerous situations — the so-called hidden homeless.
A 2014 report by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation put the average rent for a one bedroom apartment at $645, but the John Howard Society’s executive director Barb Levesque says it’s actually much higher due to add ons like hydro, water, and cable. The housing corporation study also includes boarding houses when calculating the average.
“If you’re talking about a true one-bedroom apartment, $875 is average for something decent,” Levesque says. “The $600-$700 ones are not safe, the ones I’ve been to make you want to cry.”
In Canada, housing is considered affordable if shelter costs account for less than 30 per cent of a person's total gross income. For that to be true in Vernon with the housing corporation’s average monthly rent of $645, a person would have to make close to $2,000 a month to pay for an ‘affordable’ unit — hard to do for someone working a minimum wage job, even if it was full time.
Many of the cheaper units in town have doors that don’t lock properly, or that aren’t securely blocked off from the rest of the building at all, leading to some dangerous situations, Levesque says, especially for women. For homeless people struggling with addiction or mental health issues, safe housing is a crucial starting point, but sadly not one that is readily available here.
The challenge for agencies like the John Howard Society is not only housing people, but keeping them housed.
“A lot of people, from the time they were children, have never had a successful tenancy. Their parents were terrible tenants and they grew up in a situation where the property wasn’t respected. Now they’re an adult, and they don’t know how to be a good tenant,” Levesque says.
Supported housing is the key to getting people on track so they don’t wind up back on the street. Kiefiuk often sees ‘repeat customers’ back at her door to try again; with more support along the way, they might have been successful tenants. Unfortunately, resources for such programs in Vernon are extremely limited. Supported housing is offered for men at Howard House and Bill’s Place (a recovery centre) but there’s little else, particularly for women.
“We’re a small city, there’s not a lot of cash being spent on these things,“ Levesque says. “The missing player has always been the federal government. The truth is, the federal government has always been absent, those dollars do not leak into communities like ours.”
Vernon is not not a designated community under Canada's Homelessness Partnership strategy so is not eligible to receive funding from that program, like Kelowna and Kamloops do. Vernon is also considered too big for the government’s rural and remote assistance program, leaving it empty handed, Levesque says.
Even with its financial limitations, the society manages to get a number of people off the street, people like Roy who is now living in a clean, $550 a month bachelor suite in Vernon. Over the long term, he hopes to go back to school and fulfill a dream of working with small motors. He wants to see his kids again.
“I feel a little embarrassed and ashamed I haven’t been how I want to be with them,” he says. “I want to give them a future.”
He knows it will take time, but now that he has a roof over his head, he finally has a place to start.
“A lot of people are afraid to ask for help,” Roy says. “I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t learned to. I had to ask for help, it was either that, or I’d still be homeless.”
You can contact the John Howard Society, or find out more about it here. With the new North Okanagan Centre for Community Collaboration opening soon, the society is putting a big focus on addressing affordable housing issues in Vernon.
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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015