'Functional zero' the goal of Kelowna's homelessness strategy

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KELOWNA - There has always been a tendency amongst Kelowna politicians to try and hang the city’s seemingly intractable homeless problem on someone, something or someplace else.

That tendency continued Monday, Jan. 22, when councillors heard from Dr. Alina Turner, a specialist in homelessness, hired by the Journey Home task force to help develop the city’s homelessness plan.

Turner, who has worked with communities across Canada in developing homeless strategies, told council the goal of Kelowna’s strategy is to reduce homelessness to “functional zero.”

Coun. Charlie Hodge asked Turner if providing better services than other communities doesn’t compound Kelowna’s problem by drawing homeless from elsewhere in Canada.

“In some ways, are we creating our own draw by doing a good job or trying to do a better job than everyone else?” Hodge asked.

“Your first point is ‘if you build it, will they come?’ and the answer is from looking at Alberta, where we have built it, they are coming to you anyway,” she said.

“You couple weather, you couple economic opportunity, you couple the downturn in Alberta, you add in a couple of hundred units of supportive housing in a community that’s welcoming. Absolutely that will be a draw.”

Turner said Kelowna needs to lobby government so that similar strategies are used and funded on a national and provincial level.

“Is that realistic?” Turner asked. “Your competitive advantage will be being a leader but also in calling out other communities to do the same. You can’t just do this in one city because you’re going to be bailing out a flooded basement for the rest of the country.”

Coun. Max DeHart asked what the Housing First strategy would do with a person who keeps dropping out the housing program and starting over.

“If they have trouble keeping on track, if they keep falling through the cracks, what do we do?” DeHart asked.

Turner told DeHart that with shelter as a basic human right, the answer is not to reject the person for failing to conform to the system, but to change the system to accommodate the person.

Coun. Ryan Donn asked Turner her opinion of a ban on panhandling, something Donn said several people have asked him about.

Turner told council she does not believe in “criminalizing poverty or homelessness” although she acknowledged Kelowna likely has a problem with panhandling during high season.

“Putting people in jail for living in poverty is not what I believe in,” Turner said.

Instead, look to solutions from other communities where some businesses have created street cleaning programs that pay for clean-up around their property.

“I believe in flipping the coin, looking at the strengths of people as opposed to a punitive approach,” Turner added.

Turner took councillors through the timeline to June 25 when the results of the task force consultations will be revealed.

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