Trying to keep dry in the rain, Stephanie Pelletier packs up her tent at Linear Park on 25th Avenue Friday morning. (Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star)

Homeless numbers hit 150

Numbers up from 2016 census

Stephanie Pelletier is another number cast out into the cold.

The 39-year-old mother is one of 153 individuals in Vernon who don’t have a place to call home.

The number comes from a census and survey of homeless in Vernon, taken late last week around town.

Of that number of homeless, Pelletier is one of the 27 people counted sleeping in the homeless camp at Linear Park off 25th Avenue. Meanwhile, there are another 15 camped out at the north end of Vernon.

While she tries to stay warm in a tent every evening after a long night of working the streets, there are others who have some reprieve from the elements.

The census shows that Howard House takes in 51 individuals, the Gateway Shelter has 22, a temporary weather shelter has 10, Bill’s Place has nine individuals who identify themselves as homeless and the Vernon Women’s Transition House has 20 while one is in cells or hospital. It’s likely jail, as that’s where Pelletier says her 19-year-old daughter currently is for armed robbery.

She has another daughter, 18, who due to an unfortunate accident is addicted to heroin.

“I started supporting her habit so that she wouldn’t start doing the same thing as I was doing,” said the lady of the night. “I’m not the greatest role model but I’m just trying.”

Pelletier’s story is just one of the 153 in Vernon — up from 144 in 2016 — plus there are about another 10 individuals known to be sleeping in vehicles.

“It’s very concerning,” said Kelly Fehr, co-executive director of the John Howard Society of the North Okanagan/Kootenay, which led the census. “That’s an increase of nine over last year.”

And to the fact that 44 people slept outside Thursday evening, Fehr says: “That’s a travesty and that should not be happening in Canada.”

Yet those are just the numbers they know about.

“We know for sure there are more people than were captured in this (census),” said Annette Sharkey with the Social Planning Council, who is analyzing the data.

But there is some reprieve.

With the shelters remaining near capacity and the weather getting colder, BC Housing is funding to keep the 23 seasonal mats open 24 hours a day. The extended hours begin Nov. 1 and run through to the end of March.

But with 44 people sleeping outside, the 23 beds don’t add up to enough support.

“That doesn’t address the entire problem and it’s a temporary solution,” said Fehr, adding that the average age is 52 of those accessing homeless shelters in Vernon.

Compared to last year, almost all of the census statistics actually show a decrease in individuals at shelters. Meanwhile, there are 11 more people sleeping in homeless camps and 10 additional homeless women accessing the transition house.

“So we know that there’s a major need for housing and recovery options for women,” said Fehr, noting that Bill’s Place and Howard House have both recently opened up to women.

Historically, there has been no recovery residential options in Vernon for women. And while the recent addition has been made, even more is needed for both men and women.

“On an average, 20 people a month are turned away because there is no room,” said Fehr of the situation at Bill’s Place, which has 19 recovery beds.

Sharkey adds: “We have an opioid and addiction crisis right now in our province. If we force people into a place where they have to beg borrow and steal in order to feed that addiction, you’re going to see crime.”

One thing Vernon could look at is a safe injection site, she suggests.

“If we as a community are outraged at seeing people using drugs outside and in the public and in public washrooms, there is an alternative to that with programs where people are supervised,” said Sharkey.

While some of the homeless population are on the streets due to drugs, that’s not the case for everyone.

Low income and high rents are a major cause.

“Similar to last year, really it’s around the high cost of housing, so the rents are too high,” said Sharkey. “Right now we’re at a less than one per cent vacancy rate.

“For people who are particularly marginalized, there really are no options, so the only choice is to sleep outside.”

That’s the case for Pelletier, and the 25-year-old girl who she shares a tent with.

“I was homeless last year at the same time too. I can’t afford rent by myself,” said Pelletier, who has lived in Vernon for three years and has only had a home on three brief occasions.

“If I had a place to go, I wouldn’t be here,” she said, while trying to stay dry in the rain. “Some of us do choose to be here but some of us don’t. Some of us don’t know how to get away from it or get out of the hole. I don’t know how to get out of here. It seems like I’m just getting further and further into it.”

Watch The Morning Star for further details into the census as Sharkey and Fehr will be revealing additional data at Monday’s Vernon city council meeting.

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Kelly Fehr, with the John Howard Society of the North Okanagan/Kootenay, shares some of the data collected from the Vernon biannual homeless census Friday morning, while Annette Sharkey with the Social Planning Council, looks on. (Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star)

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