The unanticipated issues of the Thompson-Okanagan's unhoused community
The Okanagan’s unhoused community faces many more issues than just having to find clothes, food, and water every day.
Many unanticipated issues come with being unhoused like being able to vote, accessing healthcare and filing taxes are not often talked about, but remain very real issues.
The responsibility to take care of such issues too often falls onto social organizations, but they, themselves, don’t have all the resources.
“Organizations can provide some resources to some of these issues, but issues like affordable housing cannot be handled by organizations. Municipal, provincial and federal governments need to act on this, they have the resources to act on bigger issues like the housing crisis that we don't,” Shey Still, from HOPE Outreach, says. “There are solutions that can be put in place but we need to be creative. The systems that exist now are so cumbersome because solutions don’t lie in the hands of the unhoused, rather they fall onto organizations, and really, we should see governments take action.”
As provincial elections are approaching, a big issue that is bound to arise is voting. That is because to appear on an electors list one needs a permanent address and when going to a voting one must show a piece of identification. Unhoused people often don't have valid identification and certainly don't have a permanent address.
When elections come around, organizations must work with different levels of government to make an electoral list of the unhoused population and approve a type of identification for them such as a prescribed pill bottle.
“It takes a lot of planning with the municipal government to enable and support the unhoused population to be able to vote. Someone has to organize it because if they don’t, the unhoused (can't) vote and it’s terrible to see people living in the streets and struggling to get access to basic human rights such as voting. Because the right to vote is a human right in Canada,” Still says. “When we talk about politicians and their platforms we often hear them talk about healthcare, mental health, substance use, the opioid crisis, affordable housing. All these things primarily affect these same human beings that don’t have a voice, that can’t vote.”
Still states that, to her knowledge, nothing has been put in place as of yet to ensure the homeless vote will be counted during the 2024 elections.
Another big issue is the lack of equitable healthcare for the unhoused.
If a housed person needed a medical procedure, they would go to see a medical professional, get the procedure done, stay in the hospital for a few days and, once stable, go home to continue healing. Because the unhoused have no safe space to heal, and because they cannot always stay long enough in hospitals, health concerns often arise right after they leave the hospital.
“I have seen people that have been unhoused that have had surgery and promptly been discharged from the hospital with no place safe for them to heal,” Still says. “Whether that’s a hindrance on our healthcare system that does not have enough space or it’s a discrimination problem and they just want to get the homeless out of the hospital, there’s a number of things that could cause this to happen.”
Still recounts times when people had to go back to the hospital daily to make sure their recovery process went well.
“We’ve had people come to us with a urine bag, and they had to go back to the hospital every day to get it changed. Should these people really be discharged or should they be in a hospital or somewhere where professionals can help them until they heal?” Still asks. “You have got to wonder how much it’s costing the medical system for people that are not fully healed that are unhoused and being discharged unhealed and then return back to the hospital…if we just waited for them to be fully healed wouldn’t that be best for the individual and the system?”
The issue remains present when it is not a question of urgent care. In this case, people must rely on walk-in clinics which aren’t always readily available.
“Think of Vernon which is losing its last walk-in clinic, where is someone who is unhoused supposed to seek medical attention if it’s not an emergency? Especially knowing the nearest walk-in clinic is in Salmon Arm,” Still says. “The equity in our healthcare system is not there for somebody that’s unhoused versus housed.”
Another unanticipated problem is filing their taxes.
Filing taxes requires a permanent address and a valid ID, which a lot of homeless people don’t have, a computer which isn’t easily accessible at all times, and some financial literacy which — homeless or not — is hard to come by.
When it is not done in time, late penalties arise.
“Organizations like ours will host tax clinics, but they don’t operate year-round, and sometimes people don’t file in time, and they end up accumulating years worth of unfiled taxes,” Still says. “Also, finding people that will sit down with unhoused people and actually walk through the process with them to educate them on what the taxes are and what type of tax breaks they are eligible for and how to apply for them…how do we bolster financial literacy in our unhoused population that they need to be able to move forward?”
Organizations like HOPE Outreach do their best to help the unhoused in the Okanagan as they are experts on the issues they face. However, when it comes to helping out in more specific areas like filing taxes and healthcare, their expertise is often not enough.
“We always look for volunteers that are experts in specific areas, such as accountants, lawyers, nurses,” Still says. “We are so grateful for the volunteers we already have, they allow us to help so many people, but we always need more, and if they are versed in a specific industry like finances or medicine it’s even better.”
These issues that the unhoused are faced with in the Okanagan often arise because proper systems or resources are not easily made available to them.
As homelessness is on the rise, Still states it is urgent to bring awareness to these problems because it's getting worse, not better.
“There’s so many people living one paycheck away from homelessness,” Still says. “So, imagine all these people who go from having a house to becoming homeless and already have to deal with that, but now tack on all the services they lose access to just because they don’t have a permanent address anymore.”
HOPE Outreach is a not-for-profit outreach organization that provides resources for women in Kelowna and Vernon who are homeless, have addictions, are exploited or at risk of being so and are sex workers.
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