The lack of affordable housing is being called the biggest barrier to solving the homelessness issue in Kelowna by two service providers who work directly with homeless people in the area.
Shelagh Turner of the Canadian Mental Health Association and Randy Benson of the Kelowna Gospel Mission both said a new Point in Time Count that identified at least 233 people living in absolute homelessness in Kelowna is good information to have to work towards a solution.
But both also called for action and a coordinated approach to finding more affordable housing to get people who are ready to get off the streets do just that.
“The challenge in our community is we have a lack of affordable housing and it’s not just people in deep need,” said Turner, the executive director of Canadian Mental Health. “They are the most vulnerable and the last people to get housing but I think we have a bigger housing crunch in our community and it’s across Canada. People who used to be able to get an apartment are sleeping in their cars or worse.”
A federal government program, the Point in Time (PiT) count was released earlier this week and was done in conjunction with 30 other cities across Canada to get an accurate as possible count of the number of homeless living in Kelowna, either in shelters, in parks or on the street. It was done on a single night earlier this year by a team of 50 volunteers and is being called the most accurate count to take place of the Kelowna homeless situation and a good starting point.
But Turner said now that they have a starting point, time is of the essence to work on solutions before the problem gets worse.
“It’s hugely significant because we have never really had an accurate number, it’s been someone guessing,” said Turner. “All of my colleagues feel this is great information. It’s not great news, it’s great information. This is not OK. You walk down Leon Avenue and there are a lot of people struggling with homelessness, mental health, substance abuse. It’s not the community any of us want to see.”
At the Gospel Mission, Benson echoed Turner’s thoughts on the lack of affordable housing and said it’s a positive step to have a report prepared that had an accurate count of the homeless in Kelowna that can be compared to other city’s as well as used as a baseline to compare it to future counts, using the same criteria.
“To know there were at least 233 people that needed shelter…the biggest benefit is getting the information out to the community so they have an idea of the challenges we’re facing,” said Benson. “What (the report) doesn’t catch is the people who might have been at a friend’s house or don’t have a fixed address but found a place to stay that night.”
While Benson’s shelter is regularly full, there are people who use the shelter that are ready for a change if only there was some sort of housing available.
“The vacancy rate is so low that we have a lot of people in the shelter that are ready to be housed if we could find something,” he said.
With the release of the PiT count, both Benson and Turner say it’s time to get a coordinated approach to start to work on the situation.
“We don’t have a plan and we don’t have a playbook,” said Turner. “We need a strategy and we need to be smarter. We need leadership. I would hope that we can pull together a task force of leaders and people who have the capacity to make decision and have some money to attach to this as well as the service community and drive the creation of a strategy to get everyone on the same page.”