How to end homelessness in Kelowna

"This housing squeeze its pressure in all sorts of directions and has unintended economic and social consequences ..."

Homeless people huddle on the sidewalk outside the Gospel Mission.

The Kelowna Chamber of Commerce and the Urban Development Institute brought together some of the movers and shakers in the Kelowna business and social service networks Tuesday morning.

The point of the meeting was to form a consensus on how to move forward to end homelessness in Kelowna.

“Enough is enough” was one of the consistent messages reflected at the symposium, and acknowledgment that all the innovative forces in Kelowna need to come together to address the problem now.

The international standard of income dedicated to housing for homeowners and renters is 30 per cent, and in the Central Okanagan that figure tends to creep up toward 50 per cent. In our region, there has been a convergence of high housing demand coupled with low supply, causing low vacancy rates and high rents that the average worker, never mind those who are homeless, can’t afford.

This housing squeeze its pressure in all sorts of directions and has unintended economic and social consequences. For example, a homeless person fighting a drug addiction problem contributes to policing costs, court costs, health costs and social services costs.

At the symposium, one of the keynote speakers was Kishone Tony Roy, chief executive officer of the BC Non Profit Housing Association, which represents 600 housing providers who operate more than 60,000 units of low end market and supportive housing in our province.

Roy’s message was that a paradigm shift is occurring on how to deal with the homeless issue, one that is fueled by social science academic research knowledge accumulated over the last 10 to 15 years, coupled with promises made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail last fall that, if elected, his Liberal government would make a renewed commitment to address social issues such as affordable housing.

Finding a solution to the homeless problem requires government funding and political commitment up front, and seeking innovative ways to bring the private sector into the mix.

Roy said the stats bear out that Kelowna is an expensive place for people on low incomes to live. He said 70 per cent of single moms live under unaffordable rent conditions, and that 37 per cent of seniors here spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent and utility costs. The average rental rates here are the highest in B.C. and therefore among the highest in the country.

Kelowna is at about 22 per cent for private rental housing, whereas Victoria and Vancouver are at 50 per cent, and the national average is about 33 per cent.

He said the overspending on rental housing is at a crisis level.

You can’t fix all those issues at once, so Roy said the pathway to a solution is to start with the people in the worst of the worst conditions—those who are homeless and dealing with mental or medical health issues.

He said the federal government underwent a shift back in the early 1990s and stepped away from social housing as a spending priority. This is not one we can blame on Stephen Harper, he said, for it goes back to when Jean Chretien was elected prime minister and Paul Martin was the finance minister.

Fresh off an election victory and committed to restoring fiscal responsibility in Ottawa, one of the outcomes was the downloading of past financial commitments to the provinces, most notably at the time for education and health care. But also caught in that fiscal budget squeeze was funding for social housing.

What Trudeau has Roy and others excited about is his election commitment of $1 billion towards social service spending, regardless of the budget deficit. And Roy is among those advocating for the lion’s share of that money to be directed towards social housing needs.

While the promise was made during the campaign, the test will come when Trudeau’s government unveils its first budget later this month. Will the fiscal commitment still be there?

Roy is confident it will be based on preliminary discussions with the bureaucrats back in Ottawa.

He said the other change is one of priorities, that adequate housing should be the first priority for homeless people. “The academic research from the past 20 years is showing us that we should provide housing first, then provide the resources to deal with health or addiction issues and finding a job. We’ve been doing it the other way around—deal with your addiction problem and then we’ll find you a place to live—and that isn’t working,” Roy said.

Also stepping into this conversation Tuesday in Kelowna and on a national scale is Tim Richter, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. Richter said he was impressed by the consensus among those at the symposium that the affordable housing issue in Kelowna has to be addressed.

He said taking people off the street and moving them into normal rental accommodations rather than shelters, and provide the support for them to be successful, has proven effective in Alberta, where the provincial government committed additional funding for social service resources.

Richter said Edmonton has reduced its homeless problem by 25 per cent since adopting this philosophy, Lethbridge by 60 per cent and Medicine Hat has eliminated what was its homeless problem. Calgary has seen the first reduction in its homeless numbers in 20 years.

“The key to this is to mobilize the community. Find out who the most vulnerable people are by name, put them on a priority list, figure out what is appropriate housing for their needs whether it be existing social housing or rental market apartments, and start to develop a longer-term strategy for Kelowna that involves government support, local philanthropy and incentives for developers to build affordable rental housing,” he said.

“Start addressing the problem now with the resources you’ve got and fight to get more resources needed to help the situation moving forward.”

Richter also believes Kelowna landlords would be enthused at the opportunity to rent an apartment to a homeless person because it is low risk. “The rent will always be paid, the individuals are screened prior to placement, will have the support resources they need, the rent won’t be skipped on and if there is any damage the repairs are covered,” Richter said. “Landlords now often are already dealing with people with addiction or mental health issues who are behaving badly without any backup resource support.”

In Calgary, Richter said between 2008 and 2011, affordable housing was provided for 4,000 people and 90 per cent of them were placed in market rent apartments.

Richter’s group has launched a nationwide campaign aimed at permanently housing the most vulnerable homeless in Canada—20,000 people by 2018.

The campaign was inspired by a similar initiative in the U.S. In Canada, Richter said 35,000 people sleep in a shelter or on the street on any given night, while more than 235,000 people will be homelessness over the course of a year.

He said 30 communities have agreed to participate in this challenge and is hopeful that Kelowna will join the campaign, a move that Mayor Colin Basran indicated he will bring before council for adoption.

“We’re hoping that Kelowna will become the 31st,” Richter said.

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