A statistical check up on Kelowna’s homeless strategy | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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A statistical check up on Kelowna’s homeless strategy

Tents on Leon Avenue in Kelowna are moved three days a week so the sidewalks can be cleaned. There is no shelter space available for these homeless people.
November 21, 2019 - 5:15 PM

As the photo above of Kelowna’s tent city shows, there is a huge and growing homeless problem in this city.

The long-running Gospel Mission shelter has become, essentially, semi-permanent housing for many of its residents.

Two blocks away, Cornerstone was opened as a temporary winter shelter two years ago and has remained full. Some residents have lived there since the beginning, Dawn Himer, the executive director of the John Howard Society that runs the shelter, told iNFOnews.ca.

In the last year, close to 100 supportive housing beds have opened in Hearthstone (also run by the John Howard Society) and Heath House (run by the Canadian Mental Health Association), with almost 150 more under construction.

Still, there’s no emergency winter shelter in Kelowna so far this year and, by some estimates, up to 100 people are sleeping rough – mostly in tents on Leon Avenue.

There is also great skepticism in the community about the benefits of supportive housing – especially when residents are allowed to use illegal drugs on site – versus the perceived negative impact on their surrounding neighbourhoods.

And statistics are almost impossible to come by.

Kelowna RCMP have yet to publicly provide before and after crime stats in the Hearthstone/Heath House neighbourhoods. In fact, a new way of collecting crime stats means the RCMP’s regular report to city council this fall said they couldn’t compare this year to last year.

But, the two operators of six supportive housing projects – some of which have been around for a decade - have provided some numbers to iNFOnews.ca.

JOHN HOWARD SOCIETY

This organization has an historical focus on dealing with criminal justice issues and does have two Harvey Houses with 16 beds between them housing people with these issues.

It also has two long-standing residential facilities. New Gate (49 beds) is in Rutland and Carrington (30 beds) is downtown. Both are more than a decade old and both have what Himer calls a program focus.

“People have to agree that ‘I’m going to work on a program that is going to help me reduce some of my behavioral challenges, maybe look at my substance use and maybe look at some harm reduction options,’” Himer said. “The capacity and capability of the folks we have in these residential services are usually further along (than in places like Hearthstone).”

That means, for example, that New Gate only has one staff on hand at times, which may have been a factor in the only overdose death mentioned in the society’s recently released annual report.

“I think it would have been prevented if we had another staff, because there would have been better ways of checking on people,” Himer said, noting that the staffing levels are funded by B.C. Housing.

That being said, out of 95 beds in Harvey, New Gate and Cardington, 18 residents moved out so they could live independently. That’s 19 per cent “success” rate.

HEARTHSTONE

Opened on Nov. 13, 2018, it has 46 beds and was the first of two supportive housing facilities in Kelowna that were built by B.C. Housing to start implementing the “Housing First” approach to dealing with homelessness.

That means moving the homeless into safe secure rooms of their own and letting them make their own choices about whether to get help dealing with the reasons they became homeless.

Unfortunately, no detailed statistics were collected when Hearthstone opened (Himer was just starting as executive director at the time).

But, she did compile data after the first six months of operation, including:

  • three people got jobs and moved out to live independently
  • three were evicted for bad behaviour
  • three moved out for their own reasons
  • 22 per cent were sober (for 30 days or more). She estimated 19 per cent were sober to start.
  • 24 per cent are in treatment programs. She thinks it was about 10 per cent to start.
  • 10 people are using opioids
  • 3 overdoses were prevented
  • The Opioid Prevention Services are used, on average 430 times per month (about 20 times a day)

CORNERSTONE
This was an emergency winter shelter set up to deal with the overflow that the Gospel Mission was not able to accommodate two years ago. It has 80 beds and allows for the injection of illegal drugs in a supervised area.

  • 350 different people have stayed there over the two years
  • 15 have moved into supportive housing
  • 82.5 per cent “struggle with addiction”
  • more than half report having mental health issues. Many of those also have addiction issues.
  • 350 injections or inhalations of drugs happen every day
  • 110 resident and 42 non-resident overdoses were prevented or treated
  • 10 residents go to work regularly but stay at Cornerstone because they can’t afford to move out and pay rent

CANADIAN MENTAL HEALTH ASSOCIATION

This organization manages 200 beds in Kelowna.

At the higher functioning end, there are 70 “scattered” housing units where people need minimal support along with 22 units in the Rosemead Apartments who are dealing with mental health issues.

In 2010, Willowbridge opened with 40 beds. At the time, there was no opioid crisis so there is no supervised injection site but, other than that, it’s not much different than the newer facilities. It was designed to provide housing for the homeless. It has a minimum of one staff member on site at all times.

A recent report found property values increased in that neighbourhood in the five years after it opened.

Whether the residents stay there or move elsewhere is not an indication of whether the facility is successful or not, Mike Gawliuk, director of service delivery and program innovation for the mental health association, explained.

“The first measure of success, when it comes to housing, is always: have they been able to maintain their housing?” he said. “That’s significant. Then we look at, has their health improved as a result of them being housed? Has there been a change in substance use behavior? Maybe they haven’t stopped but that use has reduced significantly. Are they connected to other community resources that they can benefit from or get reconnected with family, friends, other groups?”

Seventy-five per cent of Willowbridge residents are connected with a mental health or substance use clinician, he said.

That doesn’t mean the other 25 per cent are in need of treatment. They may or may not be. It also doesn’t mean those who are working with a clinician all have drug and/or alcohol issues.

Jessica Samuels, the association’s communications manager, gave the example of a Heath House resident who collects abandoned shopping carts and returns them to stores. He’s also completed a work training program and is part of a city-funded crew that cleans up that neighbourhood. Yet, he’s still a drinker.

Along with Willowbridge, the association manages the 44-bed Gordon Place and 40-bed Heath House.

Out of 124 rooms in those three facilities, 54 residents moved on in the last 19 months.

Of those, 40 per cent have moved into independent living in the past 19 months. Some of that is market housing but some is in the scattered housing the association manages.

Another 20 per cent relocated to different supportive housing projects and five per cent moved in with family members. Small percentages either died or were incarcerated.

But, 25 per cent – 15 people – “returned to shelter.”

Even if they were evicted for bad behaviour, the association tries to find them housing so they don’t end up back on the streets. But, given the shortage of shelter beds, that may not always be possible.

Heath House has been targeted by many on social media for being a trouble spot. Early on, eight people were evicted but things have quieted down so their rates of “moving on” are now similar to the older facilities, Gawliuk said.

BACK TO THE QUESTION: DOES THE HOUSING FIRST STRATEGY WORK?

Himer and Gawliuk are working together to develop a consistent data collection program so, not only is the data comparable but it will also be meaningful.

Anecdotally and based on research, people who are housed tend to be healthier, use less substances and get more treatment than people in shelters or on the street.

Given the high cost of housing, some of the people living in places like Willowbridge, Hearthstone and New Gate may spend the rest of their lives in those tiny apartments. It’s not just that they don’t have the income to pay market rents, some will always need the kinds of supports these facilities offer.

There are no time limits on how long people can live in supportive housing and there are no rules in some of them requiring them to get clean or sober.

But, for those who want to change and can change, there are staff and other resources available to help them find the treatment and/or housing they want.

IS IT CHEAPER TO LEAVE THEM ON THE STREET?

The Journey Home Technical Report includes the following statistics

A 2008 B.C. study found that a homeless person can cost the public 50 per cent more than a person in supportive housing.

A homeless person with serious addictions and mental illness uses about $55,000 a year in health care and corrections services versus $37,000 for someone in supportive housing.

People with serious mental illnesses in supportive housing, were admitted to psychiatric wards 54 per cent less than the homeless and medical admissions were down by 58 per cent.

For every $1 spent on supportive housing, 54¢ was saved, according to a national study that same year.

The report estimates that, if nothing is done, it will cost $100 million over five years to deal with Kelowna’s homeless problem. But, if the homeless are housed and supported, the cost would be half of that.

A 2012 Homeless Hub report listed the average monthly cost to the government of housing a homeless person was:

  • $200 for social housing
  • $701 for a rental supplement
  • $1,932 for a shelter bed
  • $4,333 for a provincial jail
  • $10,900 for a hospital bed

Residents in Hearthstone and Heath House pay $375 per month, Samuels said.

The report also stated:

  • $524 is the annual cost of hospitalization for a housed person
  • $2,495 is the annual cost of hospitalization for a homeless person

B.C. HOUSING REPORT

The province, through B.C. Housing has a Rapid Response to Homelessness strategy aimed at building 2,000 modular housing units worth $291 million over two years.

As of last summer, there were 28 such facilities operating with 1,400 beds. This number includes Hearthstone and Heath House.

B.C. Housing is surveying residents of the new supportive housing units and issued an interim report in August based, in part, on a voluntary survey of residents in seven facilities in Vancouver and Surrey.

Of the 368 residents in those seven facilities, 41 per cent responded. Some of the findings from residents included:

  • 94 per cent remained housed six months later
  • 84 per cent reported improvements to their overall well-being
  • 82 per cent had positive interactions with neighbours
  • 44 per cent were admitted to hospital less often
  • 44 per cent felt their mental health had improved
  • 39 per cent reported improvements in their addiction issues.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 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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