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Homeless sector struggling to attract and retain workers in Kelowna and beyond

Stephanie Gauthier, executive director of Journey Home Society of Central Okanagan.
Image Credit: Submitted/Stephanie Gauthier

Labour shortages are plaguing most industries in Kelowna while high housing costs put thousands at the risk of homelessness.

It’s the low wage earners who are most at risk of not being able to afford a place to live and having to join the ranks of those living in cars, tents or on the street.

Yet, many of those who are on the front line trying to help people get out of homelessness are often people struggling to get by financially themselves.

“In our sector, people are paid very low wages,” Stephanie Gauthier, executive director of the Journey Home society told iNFOnews.ca. “When you look at the cost of living in Kelowna, I wouldn’t say staff in our sector on a front-line level come close to a living wage.”

A living wage for Kelowna was set at $18.49 per hour in November 2021 by Living Wage for Families, B.C. and is based on the hourly amount each of two parents with two children need to pay basic expenses such as rent, child care, food and transportation.

“We really need to revisit our living wage determination for Kelowna,” Gauthier said. “The current number just doesn’t reflect the cost of living here.”

The living wage for Victoria is set at $20.46 per hour. Rents for one bedroom apartments were a mere $30 more per month there in April than the $1,800 needed in Kelowna.

“It’s not uncommon for staff to work long hours, so beyond a 40-hour week, or have two or three other jobs in the sector,” Gauthier said. “They might work in one organization full-time then do part-time outreach somewhere else or have a second job in retail or hospitality, depending on what their financial needs are. It’s not your typical 9 to 5 job by any means and it’s stressful when you’re working with people that are living out the worst nightmare of their lives every day and you can’t always mobilize the resources to help them and get them housed as fast as you would like to. It wears a lot on the soul, so there’s a high level of vicarious trauma.”

Over the past three years, more than 300 supportive housing units have opened in Kelowna. All of those are managed by non-profits who need to staff them 24 hours a day. Some need additional people for substance use and mental health supports.

Despite all that new housing, Gauthier recently told Kelowna city council there are 472 people currently homeless in Kelowna and that number is expected to grow to at least 859 by 2026, requiring 516 more supportive housing units.

READ MORE: Kelowna's homeless population expected to double by 2026

Currently, B.C. Housing has no plans to build any more supportive housing in Kelowna. Gauthier has presented new information on Kelowna’s need and hopes that shortfall will be addressed.

But, even if B.C. Housing comes through with new buildings, the non-profits are going to have to come up with the people needed to manage those buildings.

In the short term, that may be possible.

“I think there’s always been the ability to meet the need as it’s scaled up,” Gauthier said. “If the opportunity to mobilize some of these projects comes forward, we will be able to recruit the staff necessary but, in order to sustain the workforce long-term, there really needs to be some pivotal shifts in terms of funding so that people can just maintain one job at regular hours and reduce the burnout, reduce the turnover and create a more attractive industry to be working in.”

Right now, front-line workers are often young, newly graduated students who work in the “homeless sector” for a few years as a “springboard” to better paying jobs in social work or for a government entity.

One of the “pivotal” changes that needs to be made throughout the sector, not just in Kelowna, is to value the work these people perform.

“We really want to distill the information on the reasons for avoidable turnover, which is quite often down to ‘I need a higher paying job,’” Gauthier said. “We’re looking at the comparative skills for the work that happens in our sector in relation to what are those skills remunerated at in other areas of business and industry. Then we’re taking that level of information and presenting the case to the province to look at how these agreements are funded, recognizing it’s work that’s undervalued, in what it takes to do the work, but also underfunded in terms of how other classes of business and industry remunerate the same skills.”

READ MORE: Public fears prolific offenders, not housing projects: Minister Eby

There’s also a training issue that needs to be addressed since no post-secondary courses in B.C. have components specifically focused on the particular challenges of working with the homeless.

Over the next few months, Gauthier plans to develop a training course that can be offered outside of post-secondary institutions but can count as credit towards post-secondary certification for those who later choose to get that education.

It’s clear that the need for workers in the field is going to increase.

“You can see by the numbers, the level of homelessness has gone up year upon year and our sector was very much designed to respond to a crises,” Gauthier said. “As the crisis escalates, we need to be able to scale up front-line resources in our community and that's just not always easy to do.”

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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