Crime, drugs in Kelowna supportive housing complex failing those who want help, resident says - InfoNews

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Crime, drugs in Kelowna supportive housing complex failing those who want help, resident says

Entranceway to Heath House supportive housing project.
May 07, 2019 - 6:00 AM

KELOWNA - John Smith has slept in Kelowna’s shelters and spent his days on its streets for the better part of a year.

He never imagined he'd be among the city’s homeless population, but he won't soon forget the time punctuated by violent encounters and being treated as someone who was "less than" everywhere from the public library to an Emergency Room.

He was both relieved and hopeful that things would get better when he learned he was accepted into Heath House, a new housing project supported by Canadian Mental Health Association.

"For the first week, everything was great," Smith said. "It was clean and people were settling in and they were just happy to be out of the shelter."

Then the new residents started to realize there were few rules and brought parts of life on the streets into their new homes.

He claims that the building's residents openly use drugs in and around the premises and stolen bikes, as well as other ill-gotten goods, started stacking up.

"This has become a nice comfortable place to allow (some people) to keep their stolen goods," he said.

Heath House officially opened in January and started providing supportive housing for people coming off the streets and out of shelters with mental health or substance abuse problems.

The 40-unit facility is in the former Good Night Inn motel at 2639 Highway 97 N., near Leathead Road.

When it opened, Shelagh Turner, executive director of the Kelowna branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said it was the first "safe and secure home these people have had in a long time."

“When people are safely housed, they can start to think about getting help for their mental health and addiction issues," she said. "We support that recovery.”

The aim is to see people turn their lives around, get a job and eventually move out of supportive housing into regular housing.

Right now, in Smith's view, that doesn't seem likely. 

Smith goes to YouTube and posts videos of things he finds particularly galling. He’s posted numerous videos of drug use detritus and stolen goods around the housing complex. And he claims that in the lead up to welfare paycheques being dispersed, the situation is amplified. 

"There are bikes on shopping carts, half broken down bikes, bikes scraped down with steak knives," he said. "It's shady and I don't appreciate it ... These are all the same low functioning drug addicts I was in the homeless shelter with.

There needs to be some structure and rules. Having a wet house only makes sense if there's a transitional motivator to stop doing drugs."

Smith admits that he too has used drugs destructively, and continues to struggle with mental health issues and he looked to Heath House as a step to repairing both. But he says he’s not the norm.

"The services are there but people are not interested in using them," he said, adding he thinks 25 per cent of the people at Heath House will get the help they need and the other 75 per cent have less desire to do so.

Jessica Samuels, a spokesperson for Canadian Mental Health Association in Kelowna, said the organization is aware of some of the issues, like the bikes, and knows there will be growing pains as they find their place in the community.

“Just as everybody does when they move, the residents are settling in to a new rhythm,” she said.

“We have some individuals who have been living on the streets for four or five years. There’s a certain amount of settling that comes with that and we have knowledgable and empathetic staff who can form bonds with residents and help them work through it.”

The process, however, doesn’t include sanctioning or turning a blind eye to illegal activities.

“We start with housing to stabilize,” Samuels said. “We don’t condone illegal behaviour. With the talk about the bikes, our staff have been co-operating with police to let them know the bikes are there. We take down the (serial) numbers and tell police they are there. They had come and looked, but none of them had been reported stolen.”

She also said there may be some misconceptions about where bikes and bike parts come from.

“We have to recognize, just because we see a number of bikes it can’t be assumed that some don’t belong to our residents,” she said.

As for managing drug use, it’s a more nuanced situation. People are allowed to use in their new homes, and the aim is to create a safe environment, with resources readily available, so that if and when a person is ready to come off drugs they can be supported.

“This population, they are vulnerable. Vulnerable because they are perhaps struggling with mental health and social issues,” Samuels said. “We know problems are going to arise. To expect things will go perfectly well is not realistic. What we also know is we have the experience to address the concerns in a timely fashion so everybody is happy — and by everybody, that means residents, neighbours and stakeholders in the community.”

She said they are working closely with surrounding businesses to build community confidence.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jesse O'Donaghey said he hasn't seen many issues play out.

"(RCMP officers) did a recent query of the various supportive housing locations in the city, to assist Supt. Brent Mundle with his report to the city and they hadn't seen any notable increase in crime in the area," said O'Donaghey.

Smith has a different view. He also doesn't think that conditions will improve at Heath House until some stricter boundaries are put in place.

But he takes what he gets and considers it more motivation to get out of Heath House and Kelowna in general. He hopes to move by summer and leave just bad memories behind.

— Smith's name has been changed to protect his identity.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 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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