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FEATURE: Tourist season’s impact on homelessness

Kelowna - Low-income families migrate during the tourist season or face homelessness
Carli Berry/Capital News Homelessness is an ongoing issue in Kelowna.

Kelowna’s hot summer months are a big reason many people live in the city, but the sunny weather actually makes the homelessness situation worse for many mid to low-income earners.

As spring turns to summer and tourists flock to the Central Okanagan, short-term rental prices go up, forcing low-income families to move on a regular basis, or worse, leaving them without a place to live.

Shelley Cook, the former executive director of the John Howard Society, said low-income residents are put on the streets in the tourist season because there aren’t affordable housing options in Kelowna.

Cook, who also ran in the recent provincial election, is currently working on a PhD and is leading two research projects which focus on homelessness in Kelowna.

She said rentals available until the summer, seasonal rentals and hotels are often rented to people with lower incomes or students until the tourist season arrives.

In terms of affordability, “they’re the only option,” she said.

The rentals are often furnished with cleaning services so it provides a better option for people in transition for a few months, those in the trades program at Okanagan College or low-income families who may not be able to afford higher rents, said Cook.

“For people of lower income there’s no option. There’s nothing out there…I even put people up in hotels short-term and even negotiated a rate for a couple of weeks to keep them off the streets,” she said.

Mission Park Inn rents to students and some lower-income families during the down season. Manager Nicki Hughes said the hotel offers off-season rates for about $30 a day starting after the long-weekend in September and going until May.

Although the hotel doesn’t focus on housing low-income families, it does offer special rates in the down-time and often sees students in the trades program, low-income families, and those who are attending the cancer clinic, she said.

For students and cancer clinic patients it costs about $900 to $950 a month. A typical extended rate is around $1,000 a month.

“Because we’re not on the highway, we’ve always done extended stays through the off season… we offer discounted rates for students. It’s hard for people to find places to lay their heads for five or six weeks because we don’t get as much daily traffic through the off season (so we offer that,)” she said.

She’s also noticed in the past few years, more local individuals taking the hotel’s deal.

“With the vacancy rate being what it is in Kelowna, we’ve probably had more locals in the past couple years staying with us.”

Hughes has also seen the hotel used by lower-income families.

“I can certainly attest to the difficulties for young families, it’s definitely been super difficult. I’ve heard lots of heart-wrenching stories over the front counter in the lobby,” she said.

The hotel becomes fully booked with visitors from May until August so the previous residents have to vacate.

Chris Moffat, case outreach worker for the Kelowna Gospel Mission said historically summer is when homelessness is most prominent, due to many factors.

He said this includes the lack of short-term cheap rentals.

“I had people staying in motels in the cheap months and then now they’re staying at Big White. They kind of migrate back and forth,” said Moffat. “Because right now Big White is super affordable with nice places for $600 a month.”

The issue arises in May, when prices skyrocket for the summer.

“Come May it’s like get out. It’s not even just hotels, it’s rental houses too,” he said.

Moffat believes some people become homelessness because of the rising rates in the summer, but it isn’t the sole factor for increasing homelessness numbers in the summer.

“It makes it a heck of a lot harder for families,” he said.