Kelowna's Gospel Mission is no longer for emergencies only - InfoNews

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Kelowna's Gospel Mission is no longer for emergencies only

Sonja Menye in the manager of volunteers and a development officer at Kelowna's Gospel Mission.
August 27, 2019 - 6:00 AM


KELOWNA - After 41 years, Kelowna’s Gospel Mission has moved a long way from its origins as an emergency shelter for homeless men.

In fact, it should probably not be called an emergency shelter at all – it’s more like supportive housing in dorms rather than one-room apartments that are being built in other parts of the city.

“We relaxed our rules in our dorms about six months ago,” the Gospel Mission's manager of volunteers and development officer Sonja Menyes told “People are living here now.”

That means they’re allowed to sleep during the day instead of only at night.

People can now access their beds during the day.
People can now access their beds during the day.

The Gospel Mission dates back to 1977 when students from Okanagan Bible School started taking coffee to people in City Park. They realized more help would be needed during the winter so they set up a drop-in centre that became the Kelowna Gospel Mission Society in 1978.

Menyes, who has worked for the society for about 15 years, said they bought the building that holds the kitchen and dorm that same year. It was part of Kelowna’s Chinese neighbourhood. The building where the offices are based was once a laundry.

Today, it is an outdated old building with a rabbit-warren of hallways and small rooms on two floors. The only form of assistance for people with mobility problems was a stairlift that was donated and installed a few weeks ago.

It’s a relief to elderly patients who can now more easily access the second-floor dental clinic.

Volunteer Dentist and Oral Surgeon, Dr. Scott Martyna works on a patient in the Gospel Mission's dental clinic.
Volunteer Dentist and Oral Surgeon, Dr. Scott Martyna works on a patient in the Gospel Mission's dental clinic.
Image Credit: Kelowna Gospel Mission

That’s right: The Gospel Mission has a five-chair, fully functioning dental clinic with one full-time dentist, hygienists and volunteer dentists. People who are funded by social services get treatment for free. Those with low incomes pay a drastically reduced rate.

The Gospel Mission also has a barbershop of sorts — a chair volunteer barbers use for cutting hair in the multipurpose room — and laundry facilities.

The reality for the 76 men and 14 women who sleep there on a nightly basis is that it is their home.

For some, it really is an emergency shelter where they can stay for a couple of days until they can get back on their feet. For one woman, it’s been eight months as she struggles to walk using a walker to appointments with agencies scattered around the city.

Myrna Ducharme has stayed at the Gospel Mission.
Myrna Ducharme has stayed at the Gospel Mission.

The Gospel Mission staff used to strictly enforce rules that no one was allowed into the dorms during the day. That edict has been relaxed so the dorm is only closed from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for cleaning.

“People need to get their sleep if they’re going to be sharp when they go to their appointments,” Menyes said.

While there is no cutoff date for living there, after 21 days they are expected to be working with a caseworker to try to find other housing.

“With the increase in home prices, we found quite a few people that just lost their housing,” Menyes said. “The landlords thought it was a good time to sell. Or they were renovating so people lost their housing. They can’t afford their rent. We’re seeing a lot of that. We’re seeing a lot of people on disability, seniors who just cannot afford or just can’t find anything. We’ve seen our biggest increase from that – people losing housing.”

While the shelter beds were fully subscribed when Menyes arrived 15 years ago, the need rose to a crisis point a couple of years ago.

“We would do a cold weather matt program where we had up to 70 mats in the dining room,” Menyes said. “It was awful. We got to the point where we felt it was no longer safe to do that.”

B.C. Housing opened the Cornerstone shelter up Leon Avenue a couple of blocks to take the overflow – and that has now become a fixture. It wasn’t something that attracted extra people downtown – they were already there.

But a drive down Leon Avenue shows a group of people with shopping carts and possessions lined up from Water Street to the Gospel Mission door and no one down by Cornerstone.

This courtyard adds some quiet and lots of colour. That's Menyes in the background.
This courtyard adds some quiet and lots of colour. That's Menyes in the background.

Only a few are in the Gospel Mission courtyard, sitting at picnic tables next to bright flowers and works of art.

“I come here to smoke and to get away from them,” said former resident and frequent visitor Myrna Ducharme, nodding her head towards the street. “And to get away from that smell. It’s drug free in here and it’s alcohol free in here.”

By that she means, those lining the streets do indulge in substances. Many are not residents at the Gospel Mission.

While the Gospel Mission is often viewed as being a “dry” facility where no drugs or alcohol are allowed, Menyes described it as “low barrier” where people who have indulged are still able to stay as long as they don’t pose a danger to themselves or others.

Most who stay there are quiet people who help out with meals and clean up, Menyes said. The Mission feeds 500 to 600 people a day. Some have been dropping in for meals from before Menyes arrived, just as some have been forced to find a bed there off and on over the years.

Tamara Belletier is the kitchen coordinator and helps serve 500 to 600 meals a day.
Tamara Belletier is the kitchen coordinator and helps serve 500 to 600 meals a day.

Still, it’s not what most people would call a real home.

Possessions are stored in plastic bins in a locked room. There are two washrooms for the 14 women. The 76 men have to share eight showers in a communal shower room before going to bed each night. Doors are locked and everyone has to be in by 9 p.m.

This is the men's
This is the men's "closet" where most of their worldly possessions are stored in bins.

Will Menyes still be there doing the same thing with some of the same clients in the same facility in 15 years' time? Unfortunately, that just might be the case.

“I’d love to be able to move,” she said, noting how old and small the building is and how inaccessible it is for people with disabilities.

Efforts to work with the City of Kelowna to find a new location fell apart around the time she arrived and there appears to be no new effort in sight – especially with the failure to find a new location for the Cornerstone shelter. Then there’s strong opposition to supportive housing – where many of the Gospel Mission’s clients could become residents.

“It would be nice if we went out of business,” Menyes said. “But there will always be people in need.”

Forty-one years of Gospel Mission history has proven that to be true.

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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