VERNON - An in-depth homeless survey found 33 people sleeping outside in Vernon this week.
The census was conducted over the course of one night by several local agencies, including the John Howard Society, Upper Room Mission, Interior Health, community policing, and Vernon bylaw.
The last homeless count, in April 2016, found 13 people camping in the city. To see that number nearly triple is extremely concerning for local agencies.
“We’re very concerned about the number of citizens sleeping rough in the streets, that are homeless due to their economic situation,” Kelly Fehr, with the John Howard Society, says.
The number of people sleeping outside has not been at this level since 2008, before Gateway Shelter opened, Fehr says.
“People are literally dying in the streets. It’s not an issue of mental health or drug addiction — though those can be contributing factors. This is literally an issue of a lack of affordable housing, and minimum wage, and income assistance rates not being adequate for people to secure or maintain housing. That is just a cold hard fact.”
The night the survey was conducted, local shelters reported being full and the extreme weather response program, which provides additional mats, was also at capacity.
“This should be a grave concern for any resident of Vernon,” Fehr says.
The sad truth of people living and dying on the streets of Vernon is something Chuck Harper, a local chaplain and residential services worker, knows all too well.
He’s personally aware of at least 15 homeless people who have died in Vernon this year alone, and has heard the number could be closer to 20.
“This year’s been tough,” he says. “To lose so many and lose people that you’ve interacted with and built a relationship with, not just for myself but for many of my co-workers in that community, as well as the guys and gals that have lost friends or loved ones.”
For the third year in a row, Harper is organizing a memorial event in Polson Park for anyone who has lost a loved one to homelessness and poverty. A quiet and respectful service will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow, Oct. 20.
“I think in our community, the people involved are doing an absolutely awesome job, and we do as much as we humanly can with the resources we have. Do we need to be doing more? Absolutely, on a national, and a provincial level,” Harper says.
Homeless deaths are difficult to track, and the B.C. Coroners Service admits its statistics only reflect about half the reality. Because the service is not mandated to investigate deaths which occur by natural disease processes, where the individual is under the care of a medical professional, many homeless deaths never get reported.
“Any homeless person who becomes ill and goes to the hospital and dies there does not come to us,” spokesperson Barb McLintock says.
Statistics from the coroner’s service indicate three homeless deaths between 2007 and 2014 in Vernon. Focussed studies in other regions have shown the number of homeless deaths is roughly twice what gets reported to the service, McLintock says.
Another challenge, she says, is that homeless individuals often fluctuate in and out of housing, making them a difficult population to track.
“They stabilize for a while, get things together, but are always at risk of becoming homeless again,” McLintock says.
She says they’ve explored ways to better track homeless deaths before, but have never found a practical way to do it.
“I’m not going to say to our hospital staff, you have to figure out who’s homeless and report them to us,” she says.
Read more about homelessness and the need for affordable housing in Vernon here.
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