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HOUSING CRISIS: Family of 5 forced to live in small Vernon motel room

Bethany Merry sits outside her one-bedroom Vernon motel room.
Bethany Merry sits outside her one-bedroom Vernon motel room.

- This story was originally published April 23, 2022.

To say there's not enough room in Bethany Merry's home is an understatement.

It's a one-bedroom motel room.

For a night or two, it would be fine, but Merry currently lives there with her husband and three children.

She describes her living arrangement as "frustrating." She then adds "extremely" to her sentence.

"And honestly some days, unbearable," she says.

Merry has lived in the nondescript motel room for more than two months. Her three children ages five, seven, and 10 share the small bedroom and Merry and her husband sleep in a double bed in the main room. There's a basic kitchenette and a table too small for the whole family to sit around. There is no room for a couch or anything else for that matter.

Sadly, Merry is one of a growing number of people with children living in motels in Vernon.

Currently, there are 32 children living in various motel rooms across the city, according to Turning Points Collaborative Society.

In Merry's motel, there is a couple with two kids in another unit, and a single dad raising his three children who are all under four years old in another.

Just two years ago the situation was quite different.

"We didn't have homeless families," the society's housing charity director Randene Wejr said. "(It) was a rare occurrence."

The pandemic and a booming housing market, along with rapidly rising rents, changed all that.

"Families and seniors are our largest growing type of homeless people," Wejr said.

With skyrocketing housing prices. many landlords decided to sell up, forcing families out.

These families then had to navigate an incredibly expensive rental market.

Just two or three years ago, a three-bedroom place in Vernon would set a family back $1,400 or $1,500. Now the same place will rent for $2,500 or more.

The $300 to $400 rental subsidy Turning Points had offered families in need hardly makes a difference now that rents are so high.

And the families Turning Points are supporting in motels are largely working families.

READ MORE: KELOWNA BLUES: Musician being driven out by housing crisis

In Merry's case, her husband has a full-time job and she works close to full-time hours herself.

She moved to the Okanagan from Manitoba with her husband and children to be close to his aging parents just as the pandemic was starting.

Merry said she'd be comfortable with paying $1,700 to $2,100 in rent but hasn't found a place.

"You'll be lucky if you get one new ad a month looking for any three-bedroom," she said. "(And) with any one rental you have 100 applicants."

She's applied for four places in total but has not been successful. Having a cat doesn't help.

Her reality is very different from how she thought Vernon would work out for them.

The couple sold their property in Manitoba at the beginning of the pandemic and moved to B.C. The economy at the time saw them lose the equity they had in the property, just as prices skyrocketed in B.C.

So how does she process that she's gone from being a homeowner to living in a one-bedroom motel room with her family?

"I haven't," she says frankly.

The motel room is small and the bed is covered in piles of folded clothes. She's in the middle of transitioning the kids' clothing from winter to summer. The bedroom closet is neat and tidy but rammed full of clothes. It's hard to know where she'll find room to put all the kids' bulky winter gear.

Merry talks very openly about her situation.

"The relationship with my husband has taken a very big toll," she says. "I'm honestly surprised we are still hanging on."

Her kids are very busy, with skating, sports, church, and a multitude of other activities. She thinks it's good that they are out so much and says they are coping the best they can.

She wishes her 10-year-old son didn't have to share a room with his five-year-old sister. The family living on top of each other causes obvious tensions and the kids fight too much, she says.

There is nowhere for her to go for a moment's peace.

Merry hopes to move out by Christmas.
Merry hopes to move out by Christmas.

However, she does see a light at the end of what is a very long tunnel and hopes to buy something by the end of the year.

"I don't want to spend another Christmas in a place that isn't mine, in a place where I am sitting on top of everybody," she says. "We (could) have our own room which would be better for husband and wife life, time to sit down and watch a movie together or have a proper dinner table to sit down and have proper dinners together, it would be nice."

What gives Merry a glimmer of hope is that she's not paying any rent for the motel room.

"It's an amazing program," she adds.

There's also a food service that drops off meals and packed lunches for the kids.

READ MORE: A few reasons why new housing is so expensive in the Okanagan

The Turning Points program was launched two years ago in response to the pandemic and was originally aimed to quarantine vulnerable members of the community who tested positive or who were immune-compromised.

The program is seeing far more families and seniors than it anticipated, the society said. "We are hearing from the homeless, families sleeping in their cars, victims of renovictions or from folks who could no longer afford to maintain their rental."

The idea is that given the current lack of affordable housing, people enrolled in the program will have a chance to save and find housing.

READ MORE: Kelowna lags far behind Canada and B.C. in housing starts this year

Merry would like to buy a trailer but it's next to impossible to get financing for an older, and affordable, trailer.

She's looking for anything for three bedrooms, and as much as she'd like a yard for the kids, she realises a condo won't have that.

"We are finally getting into a position where we almost have all of the deposit we need to get a $200,000 condo," she says.

She'd like to see more affordable housing and rent-to-own schemes.

Currently, her kids play in the parking lot of the motel, and there are plenty of chalk drawings and hopscotch markings scrawled on the concrete.

Merry's five-year-old daughter runs around and plays and on a sunny spring day, the outdoors gives her more freedom than being cooped up inside the tiny motel room. The situation in the winter would be far different.

So what's the solution to stop working families from having to resort to living in motel rooms?

"We need more housing," Wejr says. "(And) everybody has to work together."

Wejr says while there's no quick fix, there has to be more housing stock.

"(The motel program is) supposed to be temporary, but it's very difficult to be temporary when there isn't the housing to move people into," Wejr said.

While the Turning Points program has given Merry a glimmer of hope for the future, it's still very tough coping with the day-to-day reality of five people living in a one-bedroom motel room.

"It's not acceptable in our society that this is what has to happen, that we're putting families in motels in concrete jungles," Wejr said. "We can do better than that."

READ MORE: What this 'affordable' Kelowna home will cost you

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