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McDONALD: Would you pay more property taxes to solve Kelowna's homeless problem?

March 09, 2018 - 1:39 PM

 


OPINION


Kelowna has demanded action on homelessness — it’s now our primary concern according to the citizens' survey — but are we ready for the solution?

Are we ready to pay the price, not just in the fiscal sense but also in the cultural and social sense, to make it a reality? And are we ready to carry the load over the time it will take to truly bring homelessness under control in the Central Okanagan?

I have my doubts.

Depending on who you ask, Kelowna has from 2,000 to 2,500 homeless, ranging from the visible street population sleeping rough or languishing in emergency shelters to those less visible living in precarious and often dangerous living situations.

Most are male, about a quarter are indigenous and well over half have a mental health or substance use problems, often concurrent. There are a substantial number of women and youth, the most vulnerable of the homeless population.

I’m being deliberately vague with the numbers because the homeless population is not static and these numbers might shift around some on any given night or month.

But what isn’t vague, what is becoming increasingly clear, is what it will take to reach “functional zero” homelessness, the stated goal of the city's Journey Home task force.

Functional zero doesn’t mean the homeless will disappear but the Housing First philosophy that underpins the task force’s work mandates that a person be housed as quickly as possible regardless of their means or other social barriers such as active addiction.

This is where the numbers start to break down.

B.C. Housing is the lead provincial agency on the homelessness file, providing 191 units of supportive housing in Kelowna, mainly in Rutland and the downtown core.

Supportive housing is just that — housing that comes with support for people who are hard to house any other way but with supervision and access to other resources such as counselling and life skills training. (Not every resident needs the full array of services but every resident needs some of them.)

The housing corporation is set to install another 55 units of modular housing in a commercial area off Enterprise Way. It announced the plan in January with no word yet on when they will be installed. Another 75 units have been announced but with no details yet of when and where.

Meanwhile, the existing 191 units are full with a wait list of 1,200 names.

Unless B.C. Housing dramatically expands the modular housing program, there are only 2,000 new units currently available for the whole province and 600 are targeted for Vancouver alone.

To its credit, B.C. Housing seems like it’s trying to step up, but that assumes the housing corporation has the land locally to build on and receives the same relatively positive response when it moves to install modular housing in other Kelowna neighbourhoods.

Vancouver, where most homeless are concentrated, has already seen resistance; hard to imagine there won’t be any in Kelowna if modular housing projects start showing up near residential neighbourhoods.

At the current rate of progress, without a dramatic expansion, it’s going to take B.C. Housing about 10 years to reach functional zero using my rough math.

One of the flaws in the Housing First philosophy, at least as it pertains to Kelowna, is the stratospheric rents and razor thin rental vacancy rate in this town.

Medicine Hat, Alberta is held up as the gold standard for functional zero homelessness in Canada but it has taken advantage of a much more reasonable vacancy rate and rents to meet the Housing First primary requirement.

Kelowna city council has made a commendable effort to increase the stock of purpose-built rental housing but the open market cannot be relied upon to solve this problem.

Rents for some of those first new rental buildings coming on stream mirror the rest of Kelowna’s frenzied rental market (and why would they not) where rent for a one-bedroom unit can easily top $1,000 a month.

The current income assistance shelter allowance of $335 a month doesn't even come close. Even grouping people together as roommates isn’t going to work when an average room in a shared house in the Central Okanagan is going for almost twice that.

This also makes no room for the fact you generally need the whole building to provide supportive housing for people with mental health problems and addictions; most mainstream renters are not going to tolerate a neighbour who may be up half the night drinking or withdrawing from heroin unless they keep firmly to themselves.

Truth be told, I have no real idea what the task force will come up with beyond the best practices established in places like Medicine Hat and the advice of Dr. Alina Turner, a leading consultant on urban management of the homeless who is advising them.

The task force is in the midst of a series of public consultations where it hopes to hear from Kelowna residents any thing they might have missed. Community consultation is good and maybe some good ideas will come out of it but it’s hard to see any solution that doesn’t somehow come back to time and money.

Unless the provincial government steps up with a lump sum to provide the necessary housing and support, Kelowna will have to bide by B.C. Housing’s budget and schedule. Maybe that won’t mean 10 years but it’s certainly not going to be the quick action Kelowna residents are demanding.

So does that mean filling the gap ourselves? The Journey Home task force will make public its recommendations in June but Dr. Turner has already warned Kelowna council of a big capital request and I can only assume that means housing, whether modular or something more permanent.

The gap does not lie in services — Kelowna’s homeless seem well served by the social service agencies already in place. The gap lies in giving them somewhere to live while they try to sort their lives out other than emergency shelters or on our streets.

Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran, while solidly behind the Journey Home task force, has also said previously that city does not want to become a landlord but I think it’s a line the city as a whole may finally have to cross.

I get the reluctance. Once you step in, providing housing becomes an expectation and another way for the federal and provincial government’s to offload costs and responsibilities.

This is where Kelowna council may have to expend some serious political capital in an election year.

They have made combatting homelessness a very public priority but are they willing to champion an additional two per cent a year or so on top of the regular property tax increase to get the job done?

And if that’s the call, are Kelowna residents and the business community willing to back council’s leadership by not handing them their heads at the ballot box?

That’s a question not even the Journey Home task force can answer.

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.


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