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Alarm raised over number of people sleeping outside in Vernon

A homeless camp in Vernon, Oct. 24, 2016.
October 24, 2016 - 12:26 PM

"PEOPLE ARE DYING BECAUSE OF HOMELESSNESS"

VERNON - There are not enough shelter beds in Vernon to accommodate the rising number of people sleeping on the streets.

A recent homeless census found 33 people sleeping outside on nights when all local shelters were already full.

Vernon council heard a report from Annette Sharkey, with the Social Planning Council of the North Okanagan, this morning, Oct. 24, regarding the rising number of people on the streets.

“We are seeing more people sleeping outside than we have in a number of years,” Sharkey said.

The John Howard Society of the North Okanagan operates two shelters, the men’s-only Howard House, with 24 funded beds, and Gateway Shelter, which has 25 beds for men and women. Additionally, the organization has rolled out its extreme weather response program already to help meet the demand. Normally, the program, which is funded by B.C. Housing, runs Nov. 1 to March 31. It provides capacity for an additional ten temporary mats.

Even with the overflow, the society’s operations director Kelly Fehr told council roughly 20 people will still be out on the streets.

The number of homeless individuals has surpassed the level in 2008, which is used as a benchmark for one of the most acute periods in Vernon’s recent history.

A number of tents can be seen set up in wooded areas around the city, and Sharkey says the situation has hit a crisis level.

“We are losing people in our community. People are dying because of homelessness,” she said.

During a recent initiative, individuals facing housing challenges were given questionnaires and most identified themselves as being from the Vernon area, and not as transients, Sharkey said. 

While mental health and addictions contribute to homelessness, the main driver behind the increase in people sleeping outside is the lack of affordable housing compounded by low minimum wage and income assistance rates. Increasingly, families and seniors are also finding themselves on the streets, Sharkey said.

“Someone on regular income assistance cannot meet their basic needs, they absolutely cannot,” Sharkey said.

She noted the Upper Room Mission has experienced a large upswing in the number of people accessing meals and is facing some challenges hosting clients with mental health and addictions issues eating in the same area as families with children. 

The Social Planning Council is collaborating with other local organizations to apply for new funding in hopes of adding new affordable housing in the community. Additionally, it is also providing input on a national housing strategy.

“We are in a crisis in B.C. specifically,” Sharkey said.


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