VERNON - A homeless count this week in Vernon found shelters full and at least 21 people sleeping outside.
The survey is done twice a year in the spring and fall by members of the Camp Okanagan Outreach Liaison team or COOL team. As of this morning, April 19, the team recorded 44 people at the Howard House shelter, 13 on the men’s floor of the Gateway Shelter and 11 on the women’s floor, according to Kelly Fehr, director of operations with the John Howard Society. Aside from one vacant space on the women’s floor, all shelters were at capacity.
There were another six people sleeping on overflow mats and 21 found sleeping in camps outside. Camps ranged in size from one person to a dozen. Some were clean and people were camping relatively responsibly, Fehr says, while others were "a bit of a mess." As part of their outreach efforts, the COOL team hands out care packages with garbage bags, sharps containers and other items.
Extra sleeping mats provided through B.C. Housing’s Extreme Weather Response Program are not usually provided past the end of March, but that's been a bit different the past couple of years. B.C. Housing has extended the period of time they are available to meet the high level of need.
“What’s different this year and last year is B.C. Housing has yet again come to the table and is working with us to ensure space is available,” Fehr says. “They are continuing to fund them on a week-to-week basis.”
Fehr says it’s possible some of the 21 people sleeping outside did not know the program is still open.
Even if they did, there are other reasons why people may choose not to come to a shelter.
“They range from ‘I don’t want to be in a dorm setting with 10 other people’ — which could be due to anxiety or mental health issues — or it could just be a personal choice. It also ranges to addiction-related issues. Sometimes it’s because the individual is not permitted in our sites due to previous acts and aggression,” Fehr says.
Drug use is not permitted at shelters and there are curfews, which don’t work for some individuals, Fehr says.
In addition to the 89 people counted in shelters and outside, Fehr says there are many other people couch surfing or in unstable living situations, considered the ‘hidden homeless.’
“A big part of this is the issue of not enough affordable housing,” Fehr says.
If you’re on income assistance or minimum wage, Fehr says it’s extremely difficult to afford housing.
The society keeps a weekly inventory of rental units, and the average for a single room is about $800.
“How does someone on minimum wage or disability possibly afford that and include food? It just doesn’t work,” Fehr says.
Fehr is challenging private sector developers to come forward and play a role in expanding housing options in Vernon.
“We can all say the government has a role in providing housing but so does the private sector. It’s easy to say as a private developer ‘I want to maximize my profit.’ Of course, everybody does. But there’s also a place for the private sector where you don’t have to maximize your profit, and you’re doing something for the greater good of our community,” Fehr says.
Read more stories about homelessness in Vernon here.
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