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Pilot projects look to make housing more affordable and healthier for Okanagan seniors

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June 26, 2021 - 6:30 AM

Seniors organizations in Penticton and Kelowna are part of a six-city Seniors Companion Housing pilot project being launched in July.

It’s designed not only to help the growing number of single seniors who are at financial risk of losing their homes but also to end the isolation that can lead them to an early death.

“It’s not the answer to homelessness or every senior’s problem but, maybe, it’s a solution for some people,” Vi Sorenson, executive director of Seniors Outreach and Services Society in Kelowna, said. “The big piece of it is this companionship side. It’s not just about trying to find the cheapest room. It’s about getting a match that will work, and then that person, maybe, has a comfortable home for the rest of their life but they also build a relationship where they can help each other through those years.”

The idea is to match “hosts” and “guests” through a Happipad program that screens applicants but also uses outreach workers to assist seniors in filling out applications, making connections and relationships that work.

Hosts are often seniors whose partners have died. They live alone and don’t want to leave their homes but may need financial assistance or help with chores.

Guests may be seniors who are getting priced out of an increasingly unaffordable rental market and need a safe and secure place to live.

But it’s often a way to end unhealthy isolation while living alone, Sorenson said.

“If people are alone and don’t want to be alone, that’s a problem,” she said. “Some people like their quiet but for others, it can worsen depression and anxiety and can just destroy physical health as well. It becomes a thing of hopelessness like: ‘Why am I here?’ They’ve got no family, no one to talk to, no friends. They’re going: ‘Well, there’s no point.’”

While the latest housing price explosion in the Okanagan is contributing to the urgency of finding more affordable housing for seniors, it’s a long standing problem.

Sorenson knows one man who has been living in his truck for six to eight years because he can’t afford rent.

People in their 80s and 90s are afraid to go to emergency shelters if they get evicted because their landlord wants to sell their house or bulldoze it to make way for new developments.

Some live in abusive relationships or sleep with knives under their pillows in flop houses, she said.

Seniors Companion Housing may not solve all those problems, as Sorenson said, but it’s hoped that it will be part of the solution.

The software program was created by Happipad to focus specifically on seniors but is similar to their other rental platforms.

“At this point in time, a lot of people live alone or just with their partner,” Amanda Aube, director of operations at Happipad said. “We live in a very individualistic society so the idea of renting out a space and sharing space does come up with some emotional barriers. Maintaining independence is an important one.

“A lot of people have worked really hard to become independent so, when they’re struggling financially or struggling to keep up with chores around the house, there might be a little bit of shame in asking for help. Our biggest hurdle is in approaching these people in a way where they feel comfortable.”

One way of doing that is to offer hosts the option to start off with short-term rentals to see if they’re comfortable sharing their home with someone. Most rental platforms call for year-long leases.

Hosts pay a $50 fee for each guest they seek. That’s to fund background checks on prospective guests.

The host sets the rent but that can be lowered if the guest helps out with chores. Happipad collects the rent on their behalf.

The program is being piloted in six Canadian cities, including Seniors Outreach and Services Society in Kelowna and One Sky Community Resources in Penticton. The program is being funded by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Happipad is happy to increase the number of organizations in the program but there needs to be funding through grants or municipalities to launch each project. That cost is likely to be in the $10,000 to $20,000 range, Aube said.

For more on the Seniors Companion Housing program, go here.

To apply to host or be a guest, contact Seniors Outreach and Services Society here or One Sky Community Resources here.

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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