Street angel has high hopes for Kelowna's homelessness plan - InfoNews

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Street angel has high hopes for Kelowna's homelessness plan

Kelowna Gospel Mission outreach coordinator JoAnne McKenzie in Kelowna's City Park, May 24, 2018.
June 06, 2018 - 5:30 PM

KELOWNA - When I first meet JoAnne McKenzie, she’s smiling broadly walking down the freshly-scrubbed sidewalk in front of the Kelowna Gospel Mission.

The sun is shining and someone has just run a pressure washer over the concrete in front of the Mission; this piece of Leon Avenue is looking as good as it ever looks and shelter residents sitting on the sidewalk call out greetings to McKenzie as she walks by.

They’re her “peeps” she tells me, although that definition seems to include almost every homeless person we encounter as we walk to City Park for a chat.

Kelowna is at a pivotal point with the Journey Home task force and she’s got a front-row seat on homelessness in this city: I want to talk to her about it.

If everyone else also seems to have a smile, it’s likely because the day before was “payday” as McKenzie terms what is otherwise known as Welfare Wednesday or the day income assistance is distributed.

“It’s quiet right now. Wait a few weeks until they run start to run out of money,” she adds.

If anyone would know, it’s McKenzie, sometimes known as the “street angel” who runs the homeless outreach program for the Kelowna Gospel Mission.

As such, she knows everyone from the cops on the street to the bottle pickers working the downtown alleys.

“I get along pretty good with just about everybody,” she says, of her street survival strategy.

Her rounds start most days at 6:30 a.m. when McKenzie along with a partner begins checking on the downtown nooks and crannies most likely to shelter someone sleeping rough.

The Gospel Mission outreach van is stocked with all the basics from food and drinks to toiletries, bedding and clothing. Look deeper and you’ll find clean needles, condoms, naloxone...

“Socks are a big one,” she says. “Socks are the most needed and least donated.”

These days, she rarely lacks for customers and says surging homeless numbers in Kelowna means she’s seeing a lot of new faces on her morning rounds.

“What I do first is try to make sure they have a full belly,” she says. “I try to engage them. Some won’t open up right away, sometimes it takes a few times seeing them each morning.”

McKenzie has been an employee of Kelowna Gospel Mission for seven years now, the city’s oldest emergency homeless shelter and has watched over the last five years as first Inn from the Cold and just recently Cornerstone opened as permanent shelters to seemingly intractable demand.

“We’ve caught up to the people who want to stay inside,” she says. “There’s a lot with their mental health and addictions that don’t want to be inside. Some are so entrenched, they don’t know any other way, they don’t want walls."

McKenzie has also watched as the Journey Home task force has done its work — she took part in some of its labs and workshops.

Official unveiling of its recommendations comes later this month and so far, she is giving it her cautious approval, aimed as it is at housing the street homeless first — her peeps — then working its way up.

“If it unfolds the way they hope, it’s going to be good. It has to start at the bottom,” she says. “But we need also to get them help after we give them housing. If we don’t maintain connections, keep relationships going, they will fail and we will have to start all over again.”

A self-confessed softy and serial hugger, McKenzie admits the Housing First strategy of giving long-term shelter to anyone who asks is right up her alley.

“Sometimes I just want to hug them all, help them all,” she laughs.

“I say a lot of them have given up on themselves, there’s a lot of shame,” McKenzie adds. "It might take that one piece, to say say hey, we’ve got a house for you, you don’t have to stay dirty, you can sleep here if you want to, no one will bother you. Maybe that will make the difference."

McKenzie knows of what she speaks.

“I’m a friend of Bill W.,” is what she says when I ask how she came to be working for the Gospel Mission.

If you don’t know the phrase, it’s a polite way of saying I’m in recovery with reference to Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Her demon? “Alcohol. I’m not ashamed to say it,” she  explains. "Some people don’t like to say it directly so that’s why they say they’re friends with Bill W."

Her recovery pushed her to a diploma in community support work which in turn brought her to the Gospel Mission and her work as outreach coordinator and unrelenting homeless advocate.

“I sure hope Kelowna buys into the Journey Home,” she says, walking back to the Gospel Mission. “It’s got to start somewhere and we need to do something. That’s all I know."

With an $18-million gap in funding for the $47-million Journey Home plan, the city has to hope potential donors amongst the city’s well off also see the value of it, she adds, and not just for its effect on real estate values.

“Instead of saying let's house them to hide them, let’s house them to help them,” McKenzie says, nodding at her peeps down the street. “We can’t hide it anyway. You can brush them off the street but it doesn’t solve the problem.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email John McDonald 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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