VERNON - Politicians from all levels of government seem to recognize homelessness is a big issue in the North Okanagan, the question remains what to do about it.
A homeless census found 33 people sleeping outside earlier this year in Vernon. Many more are considered to be part of the ‘hidden homeless’ population, couch surfing or living without stable accommodation. The Upper Room Mission is feeding more people than ever before, including a growing number of families and seniors not part of the population it traditionally serves.
North Okanagan-Shuswap MP Mel Arnold says issues of homelessness and affordable housing are often expressed by constituents.
“I’ve definitely heard it’s young people trying to afford a first home or seniors… can no longer afford to stay where they’ve been for a number of years. It’s across every demographic,” Arnold says.
Issues of homelessness are not unique to the North Okanagan, but the area does have some distinct challenges. Arnold says some residents are forced to move into the region’s more rural communities to find cheaper housing, but then they face difficulties finding work and transportation. The make up of the riding also means residents from the region’s smaller communities flock to Vernon for support services.
“Vernon often ends up with big city issues or challenges… without the facilities or the backing that a larger centre might get,” Arnold says. “There’s some great programs in Vernon but they’re just stretched so thin.”
Vernon city council has called on the senior levels of government to respond to the crisis and Arnold says the issue is on his radar. He hopes the creation of a national housing strategy will help address issues in the community. He hosted a roundtable event earlier this year with stakeholders and service providers — including First Nations, realtors and other groups — and says a number of recommendations were sent on to the ministry in charge of coming up with the strategy. Vernon city council was not part of the roundtable event.
What the housing strategy will look like is not yet known, and Arnold doubts it will be unveiled before the New Year.
“I would hope that communities would be able to adjust the framework to fit within each community, because as we’ve said there’s so many variables. We can’t make one strategy fit across the country,” Arnold says. “What works in downtown Toronto would not work in downtown Vernon.”
When asked what investments have been made or are on the way in Vernon for affordable housing initiatives, Arnold said many are on hold until the national housing strategy is rolled out.
“Once that strategy is developed we’ll start to see programs develop out of that,” he says.
He believes initiatives that “move people up the ladder” and get them out of the situations that lead to homelessness are worth investing in.
“If we can assist a young family to change from rental accommodation into buying their first home, that would free up rental accommodation for someone else in dire need,” he says.
He also thinks funding should be made available through the national housing strategy to support programs that help individuals become more self sufficient.
“More resources so we can take those people that need a hand up and give them a hand up so we have more resources freed up for those needing help on a continuous basis,” he says. “Those are the programs that will make the difference in the long run.”
Vernon council met with Vernon-Monashee MLA Eric Foster yesterday, Dec. 12, to find out more about what the province is doing to address homelessness. Foster said the provincial government invested more than $8 million on housing-related initiatives such as rent subsidies, low-income housing complexes, and shelter beds in Vernon during 2015/2016.
Coun. Juliette Cunningham, who called on Foster to appear before council, said she appreciates the work B.C. Housing has done, but feels more is needed.
“We don’t discount that, but I guess the concern I have with what I heard today is we didn’t talk about addictions and mental health issues,” Cunningham said. “I just think it’s really important that we look at connecting the dots.”
She encouraged the province to take a more integrated approach when it comes to tackling homelessness.
“You can put someone into recovery and all of that but if you don’t have a follow up so they’re stable, they cycle back into the system,” she said.
Foster agreed mental health and addictions add to the complexity of the issue.
“The challenge is with people with addictions, and to some degree with mental health issues, is to get them into the system,” Foster said. “It’s not that beds aren’t available, they physically don’t want to come.”
Coun. Dalvir Nahal said there is a lack of continuity in resources for individuals.
“If someone ends up in the hospital whether for addictions or mental health, the hospital treats them as best they can and then back on the street they go,” Nahal said.
Coun. Scott Anderson pitched the idea of a roundtable with representatives from the local, provincial and federal governments, as well as the Social Planning Council of the North Okanagan. Foster said he would be open to that.
Foster noted the province is doing the best it can and just has to “continue to do it.”
“Could we do more? Sure we could do more. We could build more buildings, we could have more hospitals. But there is a limit…. we try to make the best use of the money we have,” Foster said.
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