- Mike McKinlay Rhea Montpetit holds an Aug. 29, 1999 issue of the Capital News in her apartment in Vancouver. She was featured at 15-years-old when she was homeless living on the streets of Kelowna.

Formerly homeless woman speaks on need for affordable housing in Kelowna

After spending three years on the streets, Rhea Montpetit is working as a paralegal in Vancouver

On the front page of a Capital News edition from nearly 20 years ago, a 15-year-old version of Rhea Montpetit posed for a picture with change forming the word “love,” at her feet.

“It was a big deal to me at the time so I made sure I kept one,” Montpetit said, from her home in Vancouver.

“I just thought it was the coolest thing ever and I enjoyed what (the reporter wrote) about us. It was the only time I’ve been in the paper so I made sure I kept it.”

As a teenager Monpetit travelled with friend Brianna Ferrie to Kelowna from Victoria in the summer in order to find work in the orchards, but that didn’t end up happening.

She was featured on the cover of the Aug. 29, 1999 edition of the newspaper, as she and her friend Ferrie begged for change.

Montpetit left her home in Victoria for a variety of reasons; a dysfunctional family life, a mother who struggled with mental illness, and she wasn’t attending public school, she said.

READ MORE: Kelowna looking for board of directors for Journey Home Strategy

She then got into partying, drinking, and drugs.

“I just didn’t want to go home, I was kind of in a tough situation with my mother… it just wasn’t a supportive place to be, I felt like I was better off on my own.”

Montpetit was homeless for about three years, travelling between Victoria and Kelowna where she spent a few summers.

“Because of the climate, it was a smaller city so I felt that it was less dangerous than Victoria or Vancouver even, where there’s just so many people. It’s less safe, especially if you’re a woman,” she said.

In Kelowna, she connected with other summertime transients, and they looked out for each other.

“Everyone would hang out (in City Park) so there was kind of a sense of community… I felt like it was safe there for me as a younger person.

Montpetit primarily stayed in the downtown centre, finding meals at the Gospel Mission, but remembers walking across the Bennett Bridge with Ferrie in tow. They found shelter underneath houseboats that had been docked on land.

“The one thing I did have going for me then, I was young and I thought nothing could touch (me),” she said. “You do get a lot of guys coming up to you offering money or a place to stay and it’s obvious what they wanted is some sort of sexual favour. Even with my friend, I would still have men approach me and ask for that kind of stuff.”

She got a dog to protect herself once she parted ways with Ferrie.

“If someone was coming, (the dog) would start growling and that was a trigger with me,” she said. “You do kind of have to watch your back all the time.”

Montpetit also wore baggy men’s clothing in order to hide herself.

“You don’t want to look attractive,” she said. “I tried to blend as much as you could. Those as just kind of coping skills as a woman you develop.”

Eventually, she tired of the way she was living.

“It’s just a daily grind of being wet, being cold, being tired, being hungry and fortunately I qualified for independent living… and fortunately, I lived in a time where I could still get an apartment for $300, because nowadays what people get for welfare, you can’t rent an apartment on that. But back then you could, and I was able to get a place, and from there I went to an alternative school, which was for at-risk youth, and I started getting through high school again,” she said.

Montpetit stayed away from the partying and slowly built herself back up, attending online classes while she worked in the service industry in her 20s.

She now works as a paralegal in Vancouver.

“Which is hilarious, because 15-year-old me would have never thought that would happen; working in the law,” she said.

Montpetit agrees with a housing first initiative, saying she was able to get on her feet after she found housing.

“Nowadays it just doesn’t exist. For people who are critically homeless… to be able to find a place is a huge barrier, and if you’re housed in a place surrounded by others with drug addictions, it’s not a place where you can get better,” she said.

“You have to provide people with a nice clean place, with other people who are also trying to change their lives and provides a service to them and not make them seek it for themselves because even if you can get a place to live, you still have to go, for instance in Vancouver, to the Downtown Eastside to access your services so you’re always in the mix, you don’t have a chance to extricate yourself from the situation so I think having housing that actually is affordable and a nice place to live also builds people’s self esteem.”

In June, a housing strategy was presented to council recommended by the Journey Home Task Force which proposes a $46.7 million effort over five years, with $18 million providing 300 units of long-term housing in buildings with supports on-site for people with complex needs such as addiction, mental health and medical needs.

Another $26 million would be earmarked for 500 new program spaces supporting people in rental housing across the city, including assertive community treatment, intensive care management, rapid rehousing and prevention. The support would be based on the Housing First model, which advocates getting people into housing before providing supportive programs.

B.C. Housing has committed to the development of two buildings in Kelowna this year with a total of 88 units, and is in discussion with the city about 100 additional units in future buildings throughout the city.

One of the complexes, called Hearthstone, has already opened on Commerce Avenue.

Another complex, located across Highway 97 in the former North Pointe Inn motel, will open later this month.

READ MORE: Ground-breaking for modular housing for homeless in Kelowna

Gospel Mission executive director, Randy Benson said it’s not as common to see seasonal travellers from the coast visit the Gospel Mission.

While he said it’s too soon to see how effective the opening of the two new housing units on Commonage Road, he’s supportive of the housing first intuitive.

“The journey home plan is just getting started and we’re seeing this new housing so obviously, that’s going to be a great help for people housed there,” he said.

He called it a good overall model that serves a segmented part of the population.


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Infighting at Kelowna Yacht Club makes it to court

Marc Whittemore, a local lawyer and prominent member of the club, filed a notice of civil claim Feb. 1

Okanagan College basketball wraps up regular season

Coyotes’ squads will finish the season with two games against Capilano

Death Café returns to Okanagan

Vernon, Kelowna and Summerland events toast touchy subject

Kelowna wrestlers to compete at B.C. Wrestling Championships

The team is excited to head to the championships in Langley starting Feb. 17.

VIDEO: Canada’s flag turns 54 today

The maple leaf design by George Stanley made its first appearance Feb. 15, 1965

Expect delays on Highway 1 west of Golden due to vehicle fire

Expect delays while driving Highway 1 between Golden and Revelstoke. Drive BC… Continue reading

Eight cases of measles confirmed in Vancouver outbreak

Coastal Health official say the cases stem from the French-language Ecole Jules Verne Secondary

Semi loses control on Highway 97A in Shuswap

Slippery roads contribute to crash of transport truck carrying tires

Plecas won’t run in next election if B.C. legislature oversight reforms pass

B.C. Speaker and Abbotsford South MLA says he feels ‘great sympathy’ for Jody Wilson-Raybould

Workshop with ‘accent reduction’ training cancelled at UBC

The workshop was cancelled the same day as an email was sent out to international students

Former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell accused of sexual touching

Accuser went to police, interviewed by Britian’s Daily Telegraph

Syrian refugee responds to racism in Canada

Guest columnist Mustafa Zaqrit

Lower Mainland boy shot with pellet gun

Surrey RCMP believe Cloverdale pellet gun incidents are ‘linked’

Most Read