Kelowna homeless shelter is building community while hunkered down during pandemic | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Kelowna homeless shelter is building community while hunkered down during pandemic

Jamie was staying at Kelowna's Gospel Mission before he moved into transitional housing above the shelter. He says the shelter atmosphere has been more positive during the pandemic than his prior experience with the shelter.
December 13, 2020 - 8:00 AM

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected marginalized populations, but at Kelowna’s Gospel Mission there appears to be a silver lining.

During the first wave, the shelter went into full lockdown in April.

“As people were leaving we weren’t letting them back in, we weren’t doing full intakes at the time,” said Gospel Mission caseworker manager Chris Moffat. The men couldn't leave without a case worker, and access to services was difficult for them.

But during this time, Moffat noticed a change with the clients that used the shelter.

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“During the lockdown, this community formed, where people are being a lot nicer to each other,” he said. As numbers dwindled down to 20 men, the Gospel Mission became a calmer place.

Moffat is trying a new venture which he started during the pandemic and began offering men transitional housing. Currently, five men are housed above the Gospel Mission and each has an individual or shared room and a living room to hang out together in. The men are former shelter users and are even helping out as employees in the winter shelter on Doyle Avenue, he said.

Chris Moffat, casework manager at Kelowna's Gospel Mission, said the shelter has become like a community during the pandemic.
Chris Moffat, casework manager at Kelowna's Gospel Mission, said the shelter has become like a community during the pandemic.

Mark, who declined to give his last name, has been staying at the Gospel Mission for the last six months. He also stayed at the shelter 10 years ago and said the difference now compared to then is night and day.

“Before it was a rotating door, and now it has taken on a (new light). The environment now… is fantastic. I didn’t feel like I was in a shelter when I was on the dorm side,” Mark said.

Prior to the pandemic, he was living in a condo but said he was kicked out when the subletter pocketed his rent. He’s also on disability and has a challenge walking for long distances with his knee. He was scheduled for surgery but that was taken off the books when the pandemic hit, he says.

Now he volunteers with the Gospel Mission, cleaning the dorms and living in his own unit, which comes complete with a bed, desk, nightstand and dresser.

“It’s funny, when I go downstairs there’s not the tenseness anymore and you know the individuals that you steer clear of and the rest of them make you feel like you’re in a club,” he said.

Mark leaves his bedroom door open and keeps it stocked with chocolate bars that he gives out.

“Before it was a place to be to get your stuff together and now it’s a place to be to have your stuff together. I don’t have to go, I like this situation. I like being a volunteer, I like the (staff), I don’t have a family anymore,” Mark said.

“I think they’re helping more people at (this) level than before... I think it’s doing more to enrich people’s lives now than before,” he said.

Jamie, who also declined to give his last name, is another resident that moved from the shelter into transitional housing. He was working on Vancouver Island, helping a friend before making his way to Kelowna.

“I found it a lot more friendly than back in the day,” he said. He stayed in the shelter years ago. A self-proclaimed introvert, he was playing Destiny 2 on an XBox, relaxing in his room.

He remembers the mats in the dining room area and dorms above when he slept in the shelter some years ago. Moffat said the shelter served up to 100 people prior to the pandemic, but that number fluctuated depending on the need and the staff available.

“For the most part, (I think this new system) will bring (people) a lot closer,” Jaime said.

Now with his own room, Jamie prefers it compared to the previous model, remembering the people coming in and out at all hours of the night, having to always keep an eye on his stuff and “the snoring and the farting,” he laughed.

Moffat has seen the changes take hold over the last seven months and says people are treating each other well.

Kelowna's Gospel Mission
Kelowna's Gospel Mission

The shelter no longer has the sense of staff-versus-clients when they reopened; it became a community where clients worked with one another and determined what was acceptable behaviour and what wasn’t at the shelter.

"It took a lot of pressure off the staff," Moffat said.

Now in the second wave, Moffat said it continues to be a community and instances of fighting and theft have decreased. As an example, clients take turns playing on an Xbox in what was the former dining room area. An Xbox lying around before would have been stolen, Moffat said.

“It’s not quite as stable as it was during that one month, but it’s still incredible. Back when we were open to the public we wouldn’t dream of leaving anything valuable around and I’m seeing people dropping money and people returning it to them,” Moffat said.

To keep a sense of consistency, those who need a bed are able to miss a few nights and they can still keep it.

“We do want to utilize the beds but we don’t want to send people to the sidewalk any time they miss a curfew. So that stabilized who we were serving.”

They've also relaxed rules around marijuana, Moffat said.

The shelter is also delivering food to those in need three times a day at drop-off sites and anyone on the streets that looks in need of help, which has also helped keep that tight-knit community. They also created a little convenience store that offers coffee, tea and snacks which has been a hit with the clients, he said. Volunteers now run the concession. Beds remain in demand, and the mission currently has 60 spots.

At this time Moffat said it's still up in the air what the shelter will look like after the pandemic, but he hopes that some of the adaptations the mission developed during the pandemic continue.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 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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