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Shelter operators sick of Interior Health not doing its share

Cornerstone Emergency Shelter in Kelowna is in a former retail store.

In cities throughout the Thompson-Okanagan region, there are dozens of people sleeping outdoors this winter.

A coalition of agencies from a number of affected cities is pointing the finger directly at Interior Health Authority as a key player that needs to drastically step up its game.

“We need the health authority to be more interested in seeing themselves as part of the solution in the homelessness response,” Patricia Bacon, executive director of the John Howard Society of Okanagan and Kootenay told

She is the spokesperson for six agencies that released an open letter to local governments, B.C. Housing and Interior Health in November calling for change.

READ MORE: Homeless shelter operators in Okanagan, Kamloops tired of gov't downloading, inaction

“We’re not seeing that level of thoughtful commitment from the health authority saying: we have a role in the homelessness response because we understand that many people who are in homelessness are experiencing physical and/or mental issues or drug addiction – which is a health issue – and, therefore, we need to be part of a fully integrated response to homelessness in this community,” Bacon said. “That’s what we want them to say and we’re not hearing that.”

Instead, in two meetings with “more senior” officials, there was no buy-in from Interior Health.

“The health authority person at that table said: we have staffing shortages ourselves, we’ll see what we can do and not every behavioural problem is a mental health issue,” Bacon said. “Those were the three things that we heard.”

The reality is that shelters have become a dumping ground for people who are often very sick but have nowhere else to go. Hospitals at times will call the shelters to see if they have space.

Some clients have difficult mental or physical challenges. Some may be in wheelchairs so they need help getting in and out of bed. Others may need help managing – or just taking – their medication for things like schizophrenia.

“Moving somebody into a shelter who has no business being in the shelter is part of the problem,” Bacon said. “Our staff is great staff who really care and are invested in better outcomes for our clients. But, they’re not people with a masters degree in social work with 10 years experience in clinical case management or they’re not a psych nurse with the years of training that would come with that.

“So, one of the things we have to balance as shelter operators is the goal of taking care of people who need to be taken care of but taking care of our staff as well.”

There might only be two to four staff in a shelter with 60 to 80 clients.

If even two residents have severe behavioural problems, that can endanger the safety of not only the workers but the other 78 people staying in that shelter.

What the agencies want is for Interior Health to acknowledge their role in solving the problem. If they don’t have the staff, they could provide shelters with funding instead.

“Not every person working in health care needs to work for the health authority,” Bacon said. “They could give me some funding and I can hire my own health care people who can deliver the dedicated health services to the people that I’m serving in my shelter. They could be a liaison. They could do health navigation. They could do health accompaniments. They could be health related client care.”

There’s lots of health care workers interested in working for the John Howard Society who don’t want to work for Interior Health, Bacon said.

And, many clients don’t trust or feel comfortable with institutions like hospitals and police but are willing to take help from shelter workers.

What’s needed, Bacon said, is a complete reworking of the system.

That starts with what she calls shelter diversion – dealing with housing affordability issues so people are not falling into homelessness.

READ MORE: Small Island community might have answers to Kamloops, Okanagan housing crisis

Then there needs to be purpose-built shelters that can serve, in one area, those with complex needs who need a lot of attention and assistance. Another floor of the building would be more suited to those who are getting employment training or just need help finding their own place to live.

Instead, people are being warehoused with others having a wide variety of needs.

“I’ve got people in a building that used to be a retail store,” Bacon said, referring to the Cornerstone shelter the John Howard Society manages in downtown Kelowna. “It was never meant to have 80 people living in there.”

It doesn’t have an adequate number of washrooms and has no kitchen or dining room so, when residents are given food ,they have to sit on their beds to eat it.

“Meanwhile, my colleague down the street (Gospel Mission) just opened a shelter in a building that used to be housing fruit so now it’s housing humans,” Bacon said. “So, what kind of message are we sending where we say this building is no good for fruit any more so now we can put humans in it? We’re really sending a clear message that says: how important are you to us? Mmm, not that important.”

That leaves people already facing a grim future heading deeper into despair with the consequent escalation of mental health and addiction issues that despair brings.

While Interior Health has to do more to provide an integrated health care response, so do local governments, B.C. Housing and residents of these cities, Bacon said.

“As community members who live here, we have to start by saying it is abhorrent that we have people living homeless in such an affluent community as ours,” Bacon said. “Something needs to be done. Something can be done. We all need to be part of that solution.”

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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