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Kelowna group hoping better data will help solve homelessness

The lack of truly affordable housing in Kelowna means people can't afford to move out of supportive housing complexes when they're able to, leaving a bottleneck in shelters and on the streets. This is Samuel Place in Rutland that opened in March 2020.

Ask 10 people how to ease the growing homelessness crisis in Kelowna and beyond and you’re likely to get 10 different answers.

Some say more housing. Others push for more detox beds, better mental health treatment or throwing more people in jail. Even others claim people living on the streets simply need to get their act together.

Many of those suggestions and more are partial remedies to a complex problem.

In 2017, the City of Kelowna launched the Journey Home task force to address those issues. A year later the Journey Home Society was created to act as a backbone organization to coordinate efforts throughout the city.

Now, well into its original mandate to bring Kelowna to functional homelessness by 2024, with no immediate success in sight, the society is setting up the technology, data collection and coordination needed to hopefully prevent the number of homeless on Kelowna’s streets from doubling to almost 900 by 2026.

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

“We’re trying to figure out how to get clean data,” Stephanie Gauthier, Journey Home’s executive director, told “Up until now it really has been a data desert in terms of being able to define numbers and define trends.”

Data comes in a number of forms and addresses a number of needs.

Standard practice to determine the extent of homelessness in any community has been a “point in time” count every two years. That only includes people the survey takers can find on a particular date and who agree to take a survey. It's also quickly out of date.

Instead, for more than a year now, Gauthier has been working on a “by-name” tracking system in Kelowna.

That has taken a long time to create as things like privacy issues and cyber security needed to be resolved. Participants still need to sign a release in order to participate (but not to access services) and all agencies in the city need to be on board.

The final touches to the system are falling into place so it’s expected that a “public facing dashboard” will be up and running before the end of the year, once three months of data from all agencies is collected.

That will give the public a monthly update of the extent of homelessness in the city and steps being taken to resolve it, in an aggregate fashion so individuals won’t be identified.

But, it will also be coordinated between agencies so each individual has a profile that directs them to the most appropriate help and avoids duplication of services.

That data will also show why people are becoming homeless, whether that’s the more visible drug and mental health problems or simply falling victim to renovictions, manufactured home parks closing, evictions by new owners or conversions to Airbnb.

None of that data is currently available.

It will help Journey Home lobby B.C. Housing for more supportive housing sites or emergency shelters and a “Homeless Individual and Family Information System” will help coordinate things like a centralized list of affordable housing options.

Right now, there’s about a three-year waiting list to get into so-called affordable housing and people have to apply to multiple different sites.

“Not only do they have to put their name on every list but they have to tell their story every time,” Gauthier said. “Nothing is more traumatizing than having to just keep ripping the Band-Aid off.”

The idea is to have all agencies able to access the system so when someone comes asking for help they can be put on the list for affordable housing, rent supplements or whatever other assistance is needed.

While participants have to sign releases so their names can be entered into the by-name system, experience with other cities using such systems show only about a 5% refusal rate. That means there’s good data on trends with the caveat that a certain percentage are not included.

In addition to that kind of data, the whole question of what is considered affordable needs to be addressed in the Kelowna context, Gauthier said.

READ MORE: B.C.'s Housing Minister promises changes to incentivize cities to create more housing

“When we talk about affordable housing development in Kelowna, I’m often left asking the question of: ‘How do we deem what is affordable and affordable to whom?’” Gauthier said. “The affordable units that we’re developing in our community aren’t affordable to the people that need it. They’re not what we class as deeply affordable. They may be affordable to people on middle incomes, but there’s no affordable housing in our community where someone on disability or a senior can rent. Even with fixed benefits and a rent supplement, there’s still a gap.”

That funnels back to the “bottleneck” that is putting more people on the streets.

Many people in supportive housing complexes would prefer to move into market housing but simply can’t afford it.

That means there’s a low turnover rate in those housing complexes with no room for those trying to move from what used to called emergency shelters so, by extension, no room in those shelters for people living on the streets, in tents or in their cars.

READ MORE: HOUSING CRISIS: Senior couple forced to live in tent at Vernon campsite

“We need to do more, as a community, to provide incentives and work with developers and even set expectations around how we define affordable housing,” Gauthier said. “If there’s incentives around developing affordable units, those need to be targeted as truly affordable, not just middle class affordable.”

While it’s been a long time in the making – and won’t be fully operational until late this year or early 2023 – it’s a key step to getting a handle on a problem afflicting most cities in the region and beyond.

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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