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Why Kelowna remains without a winter shelter

Homeless campers huddle in a warming tent at Kelowna's homeless campground instead of than having an indoor shelter.
December 09, 2019 - 7:00 AM

As winter cold deepens around the province, Kelowna is one of the very few cities that has no emergency shelter in place so dozens of homeless people are living in tents or sleeping on the streets.

Currently there are 40 to 50 people living in a temporary campground in the North End where they’re forced to pack up their tents every morning and set them up again at night. Most everywhere else in B.C., there are indoor beds they can sleep in, if they so choose.

There are more homeless – some say up to another 50 or 60 people – who are camped in other locations.

So, who is responsible for helping these people in the coldest months of the year?

“B.C. Housing is really the lead agency,” former Kelowna city manager Ron Mattiussi said today, Dec. 7. “Ultimately, any kind of housing like that is the responsibility of the province.”

Mattiussi led the City for 11 years prior to retiring in the spring of 2018 so he has some historical perspective on homelessness in the city.

For many years, Kelowna Gospel Mission was able to provide shelter for most of the homeless. There were always some who didn’t want to go there but, during the winters, most homeless people would take advantage of its mat program.

B.C. Housing provided funding for the year-round shelter but paid more in the winter when there were not enough beds so mats were placed on the floor in the dining room for the overflow.

By the fall of 2017, Mattiussi said, the Gospel Mission was no longer able or willing to continue the mat program.

B.C. Housing stepped in, found a nearby building to rent, contracted with the John Howard Society to manage it and opened Cornerstone as a temporary winter shelter. It was scheduled to run from the fall of 2017 to the end of March 2018 but, instead, will continue operating indefinitely.

“I don’t recall us being involved (in Cornerstone),” Mattiussi said. “Other than working to support it and kind of monitoring what the situation was like. We’d seen it (the overflow of homeless people). It was spilling out onto our streets. We’d know because we’d be increasing bylaws. Unfortunately, the only real tools the City has against homelessness is bylaw and the police, which are not particularly effective tools because we really don’t deal with housing.”

That got the city through that winter.

Last year, Inn From the Cold had room for 35 to 45 people but it closed in January 2019 because the building it leased was slated for demolition. They couldn’t find another suitable space to lease. They closed their office in June.

All through this past summer, bylaw officers rousted homeless campers out of parks, back alleys and brushland.

But, by early October, realizing that colder weather was coming, the city allowed the homeless to camp in the 200 block of Leon Avenue, next to the Gospel Mission where many of them got food, showers, did laundry and had access to electricity.

The tents were allowed to stay set up all day but had to be moved three days a week so the sidewalks could be swept.

It soon grew to about 100 people.

In the background, directors of the Journey Homes Society and city staff were working with B.C. Housing to find a place for one or more emergency shelters.

But, unlike in 2017, B.C. Housing did not take the lead on this file.

It was Journey Home members who realized something needed to be done since, for some reason, B.C. Housing seemed to be ignoring Kelowna.

(iNFOnews.ca has been trying, unsuccessfully, for more than a week to get an interview with someone from B.C. Housing.)

In the end, a City owned building on Fuller Avenue is being prepared so 40 people can be moved out of Gospel Mission and Cornerstone to free up beds for some of the homeless sleeping rough.

But Fuller is not an emergency winter shelter and everyone involved knows that 40 spaces are not enough for all those in need of shelter.

“B.C. Housing, they’re doing more than they’ve ever done,” Mattiussi said. “I really can’t fault this government that much. I really do think they have thrown more support in this direction (than past governments) but, I think, they also have either this respect or fear of local government backlash. So, they’re quite timid, rather than going in and saying: ‘We have a responsibility to house these people. We’re doing that. We’ll take the flack for that.’

“I think, that’s where the ball’s being dropped. You can classify it as consultation with local government or whatever you want, but there’s the gap.”

He gave Grand Forks, where’s he’s doing some fill-in work for the municipal government, as an example. B.C. Housing bought land there and was going to build but backed down in the face of public opposition.

And, certainly, there’s been very strong pushback in Kelowna every time a new supportive housing project is announced. Opposition grew so strong last summer that more than 13,000 Kelowna residents signed a petition against the McCurdy Road supportive housing complex.

It seems B.C. Housing, not wanting to face further opposition from Kelowna residents, just sat idle.

That means, for another week or so, 40 homeless people will have to continue sleeping in tents in the snow and cold. Once the Fuller Avenue facility is filled, there will be a clearer picture of how much shelter space is still needed.

While some people are still looking for more shelter space, it’s not clear what B.C. Housing is doing on that front.

On Oct. 31, B.C. Housing put out a press release saying it was opening more than 1,350 temporary shelter spaces and 820 “extreme weather response shelter” spaces this winter.

It listed off addresses for all the shelter spaces, ranging from 10 in 100 Mile House to hundreds in Vancouver and 283 in seven locations in Victoria. It included 20 each in Vernon and Penticton along with 25 in Kamloops.

Next to Kelowna that list read: “Working with the community to establish shelter spaces.”

In the five weeks since that release, nothing has changed in Kelowna when it comes to emergency winter shelter beds.

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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