Former Kelowna mayor frustrated past work on homelessness not continued

Sharon Shepherd says city made great strides in mid-2000s but the work was not advanced.

A former Kelowna mayor says time should not be wasted “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to dealing with the issue of homelessness in the city.

Sharon Shepherd, who served as Kelowna’s mayor from 2005 to 2011 after a nine-year stint as a city councillor, has written to the executive director of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce after the chamber co-sponsored a symposium on homelessness earlier this week that featured a call for a Housing First strategy here to help alleviate the problem in the city.

Housing First focuses on getting the homeless into long-term affordable housing before dealing with other issues they may be facing because it has been shown having their own home helps those in need successfully tackle other issues they are facing, including addiction and poverty.

In her letter, Shepherd reminds Grover—who was not here at the time—that the city had a number of programs aimed at helping the homeless in place during her time in office, used a Housing First approach at that time and was successful in getting funding from higher levels of government for four different types of social housing, including Cardington Apartment’s on St.Paul Street downtown, Willowbridge which is operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association, the New Opportunities for Women Canada (NOW) apartment building in South Pandosy and Rutland’s New Gate Apartments run by the John Howard Society.

Also, at that time, the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society operated temporary apartments at the former LaMission Motel.

Operating under a four-pillar approach in 2005 that included enforcement, treatment, prevention and crime reduction strategies, housing for the homeless was one of 28 goals that were identified. So too was a regional coordinator to address the issue of substance abuse but that position has since been eliminated.

“So what has happened?” writes Shepherd. “ A 4 pillar strategy is no longer in place. The coordinator position is no longer in place. Community court led by Judge Anne Wallace, who recently passed away, and was supported by the RCMP, health and social service representatives is no longer in place. Homelessness Awareness Week is no longer in place. A community and provincial priority to deal with homelessness is no longer in place.”

The city has said it plans to hire a social issues coordinator.

Homelessness is not unique or new to Kelowna, said the former mayor.

“As a city and region we must recognize that when the homelessness issues improve, as they did a number of years ago, the work should not have stopped. It is time to review those strategies and rehire a (substance abuse reduction) coordinator. It is time to once again have community action and ongoing government commitment that did make a difference. The homelessness strategy that was in place should never have ended. “

Grover, said she was happy to learn about what had been done in the past and said the chamber is looking at what was done.

But she added a Housing First approach does not have to mean building new apartment buildings. She said existing rental suites could be used but they have to be affordable. Because of that, it will take provincial and federal assistance, likely in the form of rent subsidies, to make such a plan work.

Grover is hopeful money can be secured through the social spending component of the new federal government’s new infrastructure funding plan.

Meanwhile, Shepherd, whose two councils were considered much more socially active than any before them, said she hopes the work done in the past here will not be forgotten, as it was not only valuable but also, effective.

“Please pull out the documents that were used, dust them off, and move forward,” she said in an accompanying email to her letter.

She said she is sad to see the organizations that have continued to participate in dealing with homelessness with minimal support of government and businesses have not been acknowledged and the work started 11 years ago not continued.

“There needed to be a continuation of long-term housing units built so that space would be available for the acute needs of individuals on the street in our community,” said Shepherd.

“There needed to be more treatment facilities made available —such as detox—mental health priorities and more professionals assigned to give the one-on-one (attention that is) so needed.”


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