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More money won't solve homeless crisis in Okanagan, Kamloops but leadership will: expert

September 26, 2021 - 4:30 PM

There’s no need to throw more money at the homelessness crisis plaguing B.C., says an expert in using technology to tackle the problem.

There’s plenty of money in the system now, Alina Turner, co-president of HelpSeeker Technologies told from her Edmonton office. What’s needed is better coordination of those services.

“It’s not that we don’t have capacity, it’s that the capacity is not fully optimized and focused on that population that needs the support,” she said. “There’s billions of dollars going into this stuff, but if nobody’s watching it as a whole then you’re not going to know (how to solve the crisis).”

Her company looked at 3,000 different variables from multiple sources and has projected that in the next year homelessness in Canada is going to grow by about two per cent but B.C. is going to see growth closer to six per cent.

That means in another year there will be 9,000 homeless people in B.C. on any given night, about 560 more than today.

But it’s not going to be equally spread across in B.C.

She projects a 25 per cent growth in homelessness in Burnaby, for example, but only one to two per cent in Kelowna.

“Is it that they’re doing something right or is it that the conditions around Kelowna are different?” Turner asked. “Yes, it’s what we’re doing to respond but it’s also the bigger picture. Is something happening in Burnaby that we need to be honing in on more specifically?”

That being said, she did point to Kelowna with its Journey Home Society as a “better news story.”

Turner spoke at a housing workshop at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual convention last week.

“There’s a lot of activity across the country, there’s lots of activity in B.C. when it comes to the social safety net,” she told delegates. “Yet, it’s very fragmented, very confusing, very inefficient.”

Journey Home is trying to change that by coordinating the efforts of all levels of government with the multitude of social agencies. The goal is to reach functional zero homelessness by 2024.

READ MORE: What a difference a year makes for the homeless in Kelowna

“The reason Kelowna knows they’re going to get to functional zero is because we crunched the numbers to say, if this is your inflow and this is your outflow then how many programs will it take to shift the trajectory in this community?” Turner said. “Then you go and get it. You put it in place and you make it happen. But if there are communities that are not doing that type of work, it’s not going to just magically resolve itself. It requires that quarterback to make it happen and coordinate all these activities towards the same community goal.”

In terms of the private sector there are lots of egos in the field who don’t necessarily work with others.

“You see this all the time, where there are organizations that are tied up in certain activities who say: ‘I don’t really care. This and this is my great idea to the world and it doesn’t matter that the world has changed. Maybe my idea is not a very good fit anymore but I’m sticking to it 20 years later,'" Turner said.

An organization may, for example, decide it’s no longer going to do addiction counselling and shift its focus to mental health issues instead. But it doesn’t tell that to anyone else so, suddenly, there’s a gap in addiction counselling.

Government is also a huge problem, partly because it’s relying on a cumbersome process that depends on data that’s years old, she said.

“Our decision making has to be way shorter,” she told the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention. “We can’t take four years for a report. I would argue we shouldn’t be taking six months for a report. The data is already there. We have the technology now to start getting the insights faster.

“The onus on you as leaders. Can you handle that? Can you handle not having these really long cycles on research? What typically happens, if you commission any of this stuff, that goes away then comes back from administration. By the time somebody’s recommendations come up, it’s time to start planning for the next election.”

On the social agency side, people are often too busy to take time to collect the data that would help them do their jobs better.

Journey Home in Kelowna, on the other hand, does daily counts of not only who is sleeping rough but has an app that lists who why are, what services they’re getting and what help they may need.

It’s not just local government that needs to change. The province needs to get its act together much better than it has, she said.

READ MORE: Costly legal battle with province over Penticton shelter does nothing to help homeless

“The money is divided by these tons and tons of little departments that actually add up to billion and billions of dollars but none of these players come together to make decisions,” she said.

While B.C. Housing is doing its job of building things like supportive housing units and putting "heads in beds," there needs to be better coordination between different government departments, like the justice system and health.

Plus the big supportive housing complexes, with 40 to 50 apartments, are only suitable for a certain segment of the homeless population. There needs to be more single units provided.

“You have to give people options,” Turner said. “The solution is not to leave them in tents. The solution is to find a solution that they’re attracted to and our job, as service design experts, is to consult with our clients to figure out what would be attractive to them that is healthy for everybody.”

There’s a real need for system-wide innovation, Turner said.

One example would be to have the 911 dispatch system work in the same call centre as a social dispatch system.

“That’s where you can get some of this response led by social and backed up by police, versus led by police backed up by police,” Turner said.

She pointed to Finland as an example of a government that has a focus on homelessness in all its departments and has, essentially, eliminated homelessness.

Medicine Hat is another example. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness declared that it had officially reached zero homelessness this summer, even though the city said they achieved that back in 2015.

Turner sees Kelowna as one of the bright spots in B.C.

“What Journey Home is trying to do is bring the funders and get them on the same page,” she said. “Now, that’s lots of change management and lots of egos and lots of everything in the process. It’s not easy but that’s what needs to happen or we’re going to keep going in our separate directions and wonder why we’re not getting any bang for our buck.”

READ MORE: Kamloops day space for homeless not open due to threats to landlord

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