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Why sheltering the homeless in the Okanagan isn't enough

Image Credit: Shutterstock

While the Okanagan unhoused community has to face a myriad of issues to answer their basic human needs, the community also faces many problems the average person might not even fathom being an issue.

Kelowna’s Gospel Mission has identified multiple problems that go above and beyond just getting food and water and shelter. Things like accessing education, employability, and housing, but, also, accessing shelters to make these key issues more accessible.

“When people come into shelter they instantly access a ton more resources than if they are unsheltered,” Carmen Rempel from Kelowna Gospel Mission says. “Once we get them in the shelter, immediately they meet with a case worker, assess their goals, assess what barriers lay between them and their goals, and make an action plan with them. As soon as they’re inside we’re pretty good at making sure the proper resources are accessible, but getting them inside is sometimes the challenge.”

Many homeless people don’t seek shelters and others simply don’t get access to them because they are often full.

“People don’t go into shelters for many reasons. One: shelters are often full. Two: could be that they’ve been kicked out, if someone is violent or aggressive they might be kicked out permanently or for a long period. Other barriers — social dynamics: Somebody may choose not to access a shelter because there are people in that shelter that they don’t get along with or that they feel threatened by. Some are afraid that their stuff is going to get stolen even though I would argue it happens less here (Kelowna Gospel Mission) than out on the Rail Trail, but it’s still a fear. Then we go back to trauma, folks can feel trapped inside. Also, shelters have rules, we have times to be in and out, meal time and for an independent adult to be told when to eat and when to sleep, that can be pretty jarring,” Rempel says.

Another issue is that shelters are not always welcoming for Indigenous peoples.

Statistics show that within the unhoused community of the Okanagan, as well as nationwide, Indigenous peoples are over-represented. When it comes to shelters though, they are under-represented.

“So, we are currently looking for an Indigenous Advocacy Researcher to make the shelter a more inclusive place that’s culturally safe for Indigenous peoples so that Indigenous peoples can have access to the same resources as any other homeless person,” Tracy Janzen from Kelowna Gospel Mission says.

There are many barriers to accessing proper resources once one is deemed homeless. Especially without the help of those who work in shelters and, even then, that isn’t enough.

Problems like filing taxes, voting and equitable healthcare have been mentioned, but education and employability are other difficult things to access when living on the streets, but also happen to be some of the most life-changing for homeless people.

Education requires access to a computer, to online resources. To properly learn, someone has to be properly eating, and sleeping and be able to get to school.

“Take education: if you’re living unhoused and don’t have ID, you can’t sign up for school. If you do, how are you supposed to get an education if you’re living unhoused, it’s very difficult,” Rempel says.

Similar problems show up for those who wish to work. Employability when homeless is a huge barrier because of the physical circumstances of homelessness but also because of stigma.

“Employability: Taking a bus to work is very problematic for accessing work and being seen as a reliable employee,” Janzen says. “Same thing if you don’t have a phone or an address to put on a resume. If you do and then get a job, that means you have to leave all your belongings out in the street at risk of being stolen while you’re working. So there are huge barriers to finding employment,” Rempel says. “There’s also stigma if the address you provide is a shelter.”

Another life-changing thing is accessing housing. There is a grave housing crisis in the Okanagan which makes it hard for anyone to find housing. Being homeless, having little money, and relying on government assistance makes it all harder.

“A lot of people are looking for homes. A lot of our residents turn to market rentals and one of the barriers is the pre-rental investigations; needing references and providing income statements. If you’re on income assistance, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction will provide them with documentation for how much they get in terms of income assistance, but that documentation won’t reflect what they can get in terms of a rental supplement until after they’ve achieved rental housing and a potential landlord won’t necessarily understand that,” Janzen says.

And while many people would say that shelters are a solution to the lack of housing, Rempel explains why it is not.

“The reality is shelters are not a priority. We don’t want to be building more shelters, we want to be building more housing, people don’t belong in a shelter, they belong in a house,” Rempel says. “Ideally shelters are like the ER of a hospital where they come in, get triaged, and then get housing.”

The social aspect of being homeless is another issue that even in shelters can’t always be resolved.

While the Kelowna Gospel Mission promotes community and group activities in their shelter and makes an effort to provide round tables in their cafeteria instead of rectangular ones, takes the guys to hockey games, and hosts activities like pumpkin carving, that is not always sufficient.

“There are other intangible things that become more difficult as soon as you are deemed as being homeless. What about being in a relationship? Everybody has a need to love, be loved, and feel valued and there’s a need for intimacy. That’s difficult to access when you’re unhoused. As well as being part of social groups and community groups, we have people who are of deep faith who may want to participate in faith communities but are afraid that they don’t have the right thing to wear, so accessing not just government resources, but accessing community and relationships is a huge thing,” Rempel says.

These are simply a few examples of the issues that the unhoused community in the Okanagan face that, even once in shelters, can’t always be fixed because it isn’t always as simple as providing an address and proper identification to access services.

Rempel and Janzen mention stigma and trauma as part of the issue. On one hand, many people have a stigma against the homeless population in the Okanagan, on the other, the unhoused community suffers through so much trauma that it becomes hard for them to trust and get the help needed.

Both women hope that through raising awareness and education stigma can be overcome, but only through proper mental health resources and outreach can trauma be worked on and that requires a lot of work.

“Stigma is a huge issue that goes against the homeless community here. Where there are perceptions that homeless people would be violent, studies show that they are more at risk of being hurt than they ever are of hurting somebody else,” Janzen says, as to how stigma can create inaccurate opinions on the homeless population. “When it comes to trauma though, it’s much harder. We regularly use resources from Interior Health to try and help our clients but the reality is it takes more than six sessions to work through trauma.”

Because the homeless population of the Okanagan faces many complex challenges, Kelowna Gospel Mission is always on the hunt for volunteers to help out. Those interested should visit their website here.

Kelowna Gospel Mission is a not-for-profit organization that offers shelter and outreach programs for the Okanagan’s homeless population.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Gabrielle Adams or call (250) 863-7592 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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