Senior whose home burnt in Kelowna condo fire forced to live in a shelter

Michael Sieux was displaced by a July 8 fire and now has run out of emergency housing funds

A 69-year-old Kelowna man who had been living at the Walnut Grove Motel is now staying at a local shelter, having come up short in his search for affordable housing.

Michael Sieux, like other motel residents who had been displaced by a July 8 fire that took out two condo buildings and 10 motel units, has run out of Canadian Red Cross emergency housing funds. That meant on Wednesday he had to check out of the hotel he’d been staying in and was officially homeless.

It was not for lack of trying. He tirelessly looked for a new home in the price range of $850 and found nothing. His monthly rent at the hotel that’s been home for 13 years was under $600—it was affordable on his monthly pension of $1,350.

Kerry Flynn, a friend of Sieux’s and another resident at Walnut Grove, has been helping with the search, and he’s the one fielding incoming calls.

Flynn said that the Gospel Mission on Leon Avenue was a last resort, but they made special accommodations for him when all other options ran out.

“I have been taking him around the city for 10 days and we found nothing until yesterday. There was a rooming house that was run by a young couple and we talked to them and heard there was a room there that will be available shortly,” Flynn said.

Sieux was relieved to hear he’d found a place and was ready with a deposit, but in a matter of hours he learned the couple had changed their minds, saying they preferred instead to rent to students, not seniors.

Then they spoke to someone at the Canadian Red Cross who recommend that they go to the Gospel Mission to get a counsellor to get emergency housing through the hospital.

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They learned quickly that was only available to seniors with dementia and once again Sieux was out of options.

In the end, the Gospel Mission made some room for him above the dining hall in the prayer room.

“Rather than have him go in with the normal crowd in a packed dormitory, they will let him stay in the prayer room for a little while,” said Flynn.

Sieux, who doesn’t have a mobile phone, had yet to be reached at the time of this article, but Terra LeClaire, his caseworker at the mission, said he’ll be at the shelter until they can find something else.

The trouble, she said, is that wait-lists for any seniors in Kelowna is a minimum of two years.

For Flynn, his friend’s story hits all too close to home.

“There’s no place else to live. We are extremely lucky because of (the motel owner),” he said. “We have beautiful neighbours, who live in a lovely area. It’s probably one of the very few modestly placed rentals in Kelowna. We’re fortunate to be here and I know one day it will end, but sadly it ended much too soon for people on that side.”

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The cost of rentals in this city have skyrocketed in recent years. According to the most recent figures provided by the website Padmapper, this July Kelowna ranked as the eighth most expensive rental market in the nation with the prices of one and two bedroom units settling at medians of $1,050 and $1,620, respectively.

The real shift in the market happened with two bedrooms suites. They’re up in price by 15.7 per cent.

Current rental costs are shocking to Coun. Luke Stack, who’s also the executive director of the Society of Hope.

For 28 years the society has created 630 affordable housing units aimed at helping low income seniors, families and women who are in transition.

These days the demand is far outpacing the supply and the Society of Hope went so far as to stop accepting applications for July and August, with plans to get back to resuming them again in September.

“The number of applicants coming to our door is 30-a-week and we only placed 20 this year,” said Stack.

“When people ask, ‘When can I get something? How long it will be?’ I really don’t have an answer for that,” he said. “There are so many applicants and so few units.”

An area where Stack sees great pressure is for senior housing. Of the 630 units the Society of Hope created, 388 are for seniors. As of Thursday, 300 applications on his desk were for seniors’ housing.

The need he said, is “extremely high” and getting more intense as the population ages and more people move to the area.

“I look at the prices already, and think ‘how could it be so much?’” he said. “It’s shocking.”

He’s hoping several city-led initiatives will lessen the strain on the market.

“One of the things we have in the works at city council is tax incentives for purpose built rental housing,” he said. “That has been successful and we have approximately 1,500 rentals under construction. I’m optimistic that when those come along it may give us some relief.”

BC housing is also working on eight different non-profit housing projects in the area and the city has launched its Journey Home Housing strategy, to help people who are homeless.

None of these things alone are going to solve the problem, said Stack, though he’s optimistic.

“There are market pressures I don’t think you can solve,” he said. “It’s the same here as it is in Vancouver. How do you get the pricing in Vancouver down? It’s a massive problem that nobody can solve. For anybody who has been trying to create affordable housing and working tirelessly, it’s a little hard.”

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