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Who is responsible for providing winter shelter?

These tents were set up in the Recreation Avenue campsite in late November
December 20, 2019 - 7:00 AM

When winter weather hit Kelowna near the beginning of December, it became clear there was a problem — the city had no winter emergency shelter for its homeless population.

And while a small group of volunteers has stepped forward to tend to many of their needs as they camp outdoors and the City of Kelowna stepped up with a peculiar list of priorities — it designated two spaces downtown for homeless campers, a place to store their stuff, a warming tent and later a safe injection tent, along with a small army of bylaw officers and security — one question has remained unanswered.

Who, if anyone, is responsible for providing emergency winter shelter?

The short answer is: No one, and that explains the unique situation in Kelowna.

A B.C. government document says it’s a “joint responsibility across all levels of government.”

"It’s not about who’s responsible," Ann Howard, B.C. Housing’s Interior regional director, told iNFOnews.ca. "I think we’re all responsible as a community. We have people who need a place to stay this winter and without it, we could have people who die. Ultimately we fund it. It is the community as a whole that is responsible for delivering the services and coming forward with a site."

Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran says it’s up to B.C. Housing to take the lead role.

The odd priorities the City has come up with follows a 2015 Supreme Court of B.C. ruling stemming from an incident in Abbotsford where bylaw officers dumped chicken manure next to a homeless camp in an effort to get them to leave. It established that a City cannot prevent homeless people from camping near services if there is nowhere else to go. The ruling has created a legal quagmire for cities throughout the province struggling to deal with homeless camps and resultant garbage and waste.

“As long as we are in a situation where we do not have adequate sheltering space in our city, then people will have a legal right to shelter overnight and the city will, therefore, have a legal obligation to provide sheltering space overnight,” is how Darren Caul, Kelowna’s community safety director, interprets that ruling. “The court ruling (also) provides the opportunity for municipalities to designate which spaces and we have exercised that right.”

But the City can’t designate some unreasonable place far from services.

“Legally we have to create the conditions on the public space so we’re not forcing people to choose between their health and welfare and complying with the law,” Caul said. “We have done that by selecting a location that is approximal to supports and services, augmented by transportation to those supports and services, as well as warming amenities, including blankets, toques, gloves hand and toe warmers and a heating tent, as well as water.”

The ruling also gives the city the right to force the campers to take down their tents each morning by 9 a.m. and not set up again until 7 p.m. to prevent it from becoming permanent.

But while the City has met what it considers the legal standard and B.C. Housing is waiting to fund a community effort, neither is required to establish a winter shelter. The responsibility, it seems, falls to any local societies or volunteers who step up to claim it. 

In West Kelowna, the city spearheaded the effort to find shelter space.

“We started talking to them (B.C. Housing) in mid-July, asking how they were coming with their plans for finding a winter shelter,” CAO Paul Gipps said. “They were going rather slow on that.”

B.C. Housing's Howard explained to councillors what took so long.

“This search has been going on for the last year-and-a-half,” Howard told West Kelowna council last week. “Every time we’ve tried, a door closed.”

In Kelowna, it was the Journey Home society directors who noticed there was a “gap” in efforts to find a shelter space for Kelowna and started to pull people from various agencies together to try to find a space.

Howard told iNFOnews that B.C. Housing has been on that job for years.

“The Chamber said they were helping,” she said. “The Downtown Business Association said they would help. City staff have worked hard to try to find a space, a piece of land, something we could use as a temporary shelter. Every person was aware that this was something that we needed and there was a lot of effort over the last two-and-a-half years to find spaces. We did find land for permanent housing which, I think, is the answer. But we didn’t find anything, through all the effort and searching, to have a shelter.”

It was only in the last couple of weeks that spaces have been found. And again, it was volunteers who made it happen, albeit far too late for the comfort of the 30 to 50 people sleeping outdoors.

On the largely invisible federal level, a National Housing Strategy Act was proclaimed last June that made the right to adequate housing a fundamental human right in Canada.

But, according to the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, that does not allow individuals to claim housing. Nor does it give the federal government any power to force provinces or cities to provide housing, which completes the circle of all three levels of government saying they’re not the one responsible for providing housing.

That leads the question back to the 2015 Abbotsford ruling that only requires cities to provide a reasonable place for the homeless to camp, but only overnight.

Without any government accepting responsibility, it's left wide open to happen again anywhere in the province.

“Our comfort is that we’ve kept them from freezing this winter and we hope we can find a place to do it again next winter,” Howard told West Kelowna council. “They survived on the street this last summer and they’ll survive again. It’s not the best. It’s not the answer. But, our hope is that they don’t need that emergency service in the summer in the same way they do in the winter.”

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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