Kelowna Rail Trail forebodes a growing housing and drug crisis | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Kelowna Rail Trail forebodes a growing housing and drug crisis

View of the encampment from the east end.

The Kelowna Rail Trail is the City’s designated campground for Kelowna’s homeless population.

If you walk down the Rail Trail today you will find a line of more than 100 tents, carts filled with belongings and a few make-shift facilities.

The sight is a far cry from the luxury beach homes and modern apartment complexes just a short distance away. It would also be a drastic change from what you may have found in the same location just a year ago.

The number of people sleeping rough in Kelowna has risen by more than 100 people since last September, according to the City of Kelowna.

Kelowna bylaw services manager Kevin Mead told the city has been doing a daily count of people sleeping on the street. In that time, the numbers have been on a steep incline, from 161 last September to 265 now.

Mead said that the City continues to tackle the problem of homelessness by working with a number of organizations, governmental agencies and the RCMP.

“We all see what is human tragedy in our backyard and it’s difficult for everyone,” Mead said. “It's difficult for my team that goes out and tries to try to serve every day as it is our not for profit partners and other government department partners, the general public and business community as well. We maximize the effect when we're working together in this and not in opposition.”

However, Patricia Bacon, Executive Director for the John Howard Society of Okanagan and Kootenay, said more needs to be done to help the increasing number of Kelowna’s residents who find themselves sleeping rough.

“I think anybody who hasn't been feeling that (homelessness has) been more noticeable isn’t paying attention,” Bacon said.

Bacon told that it’s important not to oversimplify the problem of homelessness.

“I think the thing that we have to be careful about is looking for simple narratives for complex problems,” she said.

It isn’t just about addiction. With rising rent prices and a general increase in the cost of living in Kelowna, people are finding themselves without a home for a multitude of reasons.

“We are seeing people who maybe are homeless because of struggles with drugs and drug-related addictions, but we're also seeing more people where that is not what the narrative is,” Bacon said. “The narrative is that they were in housing that they could afford and then for some reason that housing no longer exists. Either it got torn down or it got renovated or a myriad of factors. Maybe they were doing fine work, living in an apartment that was costing them $900 a month, but they can't afford $1,800 a month and that becomes the tipping point.”

Bacon said more people have been coming to the John Howard Society who would not typically be there, people who have simply not been able to keep up with rising financial demand.

“We are seeing more people who are coming to our organization saying, ‘I just lost my housing and I don't know what to do’,” she said. “These aren't folks that would be a typical John Howard Society client. So, it's really hard and challenging because our services weren't really sort of set up for that reality.... This is a new reality of homelessness. I could confidently say if you were here five years ago, that's not something that you would have seen. Right now, part of the challenge is that we don't have enough affordable rental housing for people. We don't have enough supported housing. We have an opioid crisis. And so we have people who have literally nowhere to go. And we don't have enough homeless shelters.

“We have to be careful that we do not think simply that everybody who's out on the rail trail is a person who has a problem with drugs and that if they didn't have a problem with drugs, that they would be conveniently and comfortably housed,” she said. “Because if we do, we will not solve this problem.”

More needs to be done to help people who find themselves without a home, including safer drug supplies and more housing support, Bacon said.

“We have to be careful about thinking that we just need more homeless shelters,” she said. “We do need more homeless shelters. That's true… we also need more just low barrier affordable housing. And we need sensible drug policy.”

The safer supply initiative is an attempt to remedy the country’s drug overdose crisis.

According to the Canadian Government website, safer supply services provide people suffering with addiction with prescribed opioid, stimulant, and benzodiazepine medications.

The initiative is attempting to prevent drug overdoses from fentanyl and other toxic substances commonly sold on the streets by providing people with a safer alternative.

A safer supply service in Kelowna would be a step towards helping those who are homeless due to addiction, Bacon said.

“We are still continuing to force people to take a gamble with their lives every single time they want to use drugs,” she said. “We should have safe supply. We should have sensible drug policy. And at this point in time, we do not.”

The narrative of people suffering from an addiction being failures or societal outcasts needs to end, Bacon said.

What’s more, if Kelowna is to become an inclusive community, more needs to be done to support working class residents and those who have slipped below the poverty line.

“We have to decide if we want Kelowna to be a liveable community. Do we want this community to be a place where all sorts of people can come and live and play and enjoy the land and the beautiful climate?” she said. “Or do we want it to be an unliveable city that is a playground for people who have privilege and people who don't have privilege can go somewhere else.”

Bacon said she feels optimistic that Kelowna can work towards becoming a community where people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are considered and included.

“I think most people who live in Kelowna would say… we want a community that's truly a community and has community values,” she said. “Therefore, we have to then have hard conversations about what is it that we're willing to do then to make sure that we have a true community that is inclusive.”

That conversation begins with the Rail Trail and those in Kelowna who have found themselves in the most desperate of situations.

“The people who are out on the rail trail are in real trouble in one way or another. We need to understand the narratives and the system that put them (there),” she said.  “We need to understand what it's going to take so that we can resolve it and we have to say that this investment is worth it, because that's how you build a vibrant, healthy community.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Georgina Whitehouse 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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