Top Stories of 2016: Kelowna struggles with homelessness

Homelessness continued to be a top issue in the City of Kelowna, which approved a new strategy but engraged the public with new bylaw

The homelessness issue in Kelowna was one of the top stories of 2016.

The issue of homelessness was one that, in a variety of ways, held the attention of Kelowna in 2016.

The issue associated with homelessness that got the most play in the city this year was council’s decision to extend its ban on sitting or sleeping on city sidewalks.

The outraged public response marked by a protest on the steps of city hall seemed to catch council off guard, with Mayor Colin Basran remarking later that the “minor” amendment to a bylaw was unexpected.

While he said it was driven by public and business concerns about blocked sidewalks, those opposed see it as an attack on the homeless, noting many have nowhere else to go.

Basran has said bylaw officers will not be out “24/7” looking for people to ticket under the expanded bylaw, which prohibits sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk at any time of the day or night.

In an effort to help address the homelessness issue, and some of the contributing factors, council approved the creation of a new staff position in the 2016 city budget a social issues manager.

The position was filled by Sue Wheeler, who came to Kelowna from the City of Maple Ridge, where part of her work included dealing with the homeless there.

After orienting herself, meeting with representatives of many local social agencies and getting a feel for what is available here in terms of services for those on the street, Wheeler proposed a made-in-Kelowna strategy to address the issue, one that will attempt to bring all affected groups together.

“We want to break down the silos,” said Basran, after Wheeler presented her plan to council.

Wheeler’s report was described as possibly the most anticipated the current council has received since it was elected in 2014, as the homeless population in the city seems to have grown substantially this year with more young people being seen on the street.

A count of the city’s homeless in February pegged the number at around 230, but city officials feel that is low because many more arrived in the summer months.

The strategy will take an estimated 16 months to complete and will include talking with all groups, and those who are homeless to get their experience and a sense of the contributing factors that led them to being on the street.

When council endorsed the plan, it also budgeted $200,000 to pay for it, with $75,000 to be sought from partners and grants from other levels of government.

But it is not just about planning for what to do in the future.

Other, more immediate initiatives, have also been announced, such as having outreach workers go with city bylaw officers when they patrol the downtown in an attempt to connect some of the people living on the street with services that can help them.

The new officer in charge of the city’s RCMP detachment, Insp. Brent Mundle, also announced a plan to have mental health workers ride with RCMP officers in the city to help people that the police are called to deal with.

Mental illness, as well as drug addiction, have long been seen as two issues often at play in the plight of some homeless people.

Also this year, the city was successful in getting an estimated 1,600 units of rental housing approved for Kelowna to be built over the next few years.

While different from the social housing typically associated with helping the homeless, affordable, rental hosing has been in short supply here for many years and that shortage can contribute to some of the problems.

During her presentation to council about the upcoming homeless-serving strategy, Wheeler said one of the local shelters has reported as many as 30 per cent of the people who spend the night there, get up each morning and go to work.

The issue of homelessness is not just one of “street people,” she said.

Earlier this year, the province announced its largest ever plan to help fund social housing in B.C.