A better grasp on the number of men and women struggling with homelessness in Kelowna should be known next month, following a community-wide count.
The federal government is funding the count, which will be led by the Central Okanagan Foundation, in addition to counts in 29 other Canadian communities.
The aim is to create a national understanding of what the country is facing in terms of homelessness, as some communities have never undertaken the task.
Kelowna has done its own homeless counts in the past, with the last being completed three to four years ago. Other communities around the country have also taken on the task. The problem has been that the methodologies from area to area differ, and that undermines the results.
Randy Benson, executive director, of the Gospel Mission, said the study should yield useful information for those who make helping Kelowna’s street people their business.
“It gives us a baseline,” Benson said, noting that the Gospel Mission will offer assistance with the count, but the Central Okanagan Foundation is really the lead.
“A lot of times we are asked if homelessness is increasing or decreasing, but we need a consistent starting point to see if numbers go up or down in the next couple years. It will give us a clearer picture of the community at large.”
That picture, he said, will likely come as a surprise to many Kelowna residents.
“There is a lot of homelessness you don’t see. Our outreach workers know where the camps are, and where the homeless hang out. If you come down Leon Avenue or go to the Gospel Mission, you see people there, but the problem extends beyond those places.”
Even what can be seen is being stressed
beyond normal. Usually at this time of year the number of people using their services begins to decrease. This year the number of beds filled reached 100, which is capacity, more than once.
On average there were 80 to 90 beds used a night.
Daytime food and support services are also seeing heightened demand.
Benson couldn’t say what’s causing increased pressure on services—Kelowna’s high cost of housing and low supply has been an issue for years. He did, however, note there has been rising numbers of seniors and women who are using the mission’s services.
He’s hoping that the homeless count will help suss out some clearer explanations of what’s causing the rise.
If not, the count should certainly help the new City of Kelowna staffer who will be dedicated to dealing with homelessness.
Late last year the Kelowna city council made the decision to hire a social issues co-ordinator who will deal with homelessness. Their start date will be in the late spring or early summer.
The need for the position became apparent in 2015, when city bylaw officers reported dealing with twice as many homeless camps than they had in the previous year.
“The city bringing in a staff person to look at the homeless issue should help us answer the question of why our services are in greater demand,” Benson said. “It’s the million dollar question.”
Larger city representatives had expressed some frustration with the count being held during peak winter conditions, as the homeless population is oftentimes hidden at this time of year.
Benson acknowledged that the hidden homeless would be hard to count, but pointed out that there’s always a portion of the homeless community who won’t show up in counts due to couch surfing and the like.