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‘We are tired of the futility’: Okanagan shelters call for changes to homelessness response

Open letter addressed to Interior Health, BC Housing, municipalities calls for ‘meaningful change’
Shelter and outreach operators in the B.C. Interior, including several in the Okanagan, have authored an open letter to Interior Health, BC Housing and municipalities calling for changes to the way the “homeless crisis” is addressed. The letter was issued Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)

As cold weather sets in, a group of B.C. Interior shelter and outreach operators are calling for change in the way cities and the health authority tackle the homeless crisis.

In an open letter to mayors and councillors in the B.C. Interior, as well as BC Housing and Interior Health, the shelter and outreach operators highlight issues with temporary winter shelter programs, the “unrealized promise” of year-round shelters, work force and training challenges and more.

Signing the letter were representatives from the Nicola Valley Shelter and Support Society, the John Howard Society of Okanagan and Kootenay, ASK Wellness Society, Penticton and District Society for Community Living, Kelowna Gospel Mission and Turning Points Collaborative Society.

The authors of the lengthy and sweeping letter say temporary shelter programs are “rife with problems for operators and the vulnerable and complex persons they serve.” They say the cycle of bringing people in from the cold and providing them with the barest of supports, and then kicking them back to the streets in the spring has become “an exercise in futility at best.”

“We are tired of seeing no meaningful outcome to the cycle of indoor cold winter shelter and outdoor summer tenting areas. We are tired of knowing that the brevity of both the investment and the stay means health will not improve, permanent housing will not materialize, and nothing will change,” the letter states.

The group also points to the challenges faced by their employees, who work “dangerous, underpaid and woefully under-resourced” jobs.

“The work has become so dangerous and remains so underinvested that it is unconscionable for operators to say yes to this arrangement,” the group says, adding that most of the organizations are running their shelters with very low staffing ratios.

The groups say the challenges faced by the temporary winter shelter programs are made worse by unaddressed issues in the regular shelter system. They say the system is falling short in its promise to put sheltered individuals in the queue for supportive housing.

“After several years of operating shelters, this promise remains unrealized … leaving most of us with clients who are living for months or years in our shelters.”

The group says their shelters have become a place for hospitals to discharge people in need of health care, and for the police to drop off people with mental illness.

“Our shelters have become a place where people languish because there has been no investment in programs, health, skills, wellness planning, and second stage housing,” the letter states.

“Operators are running shelters in rundown buildings, in overcrowded rooms, and in temporary structures in part because some municipalities in the region have lacked the political will or courage to build permanent, purpose-built shelters and additional supportive housing.”

The group asks Interior Health to “come to the table,” having left shelter and outreach operators with the responsibility of handling medication administration, co-morbidities, bathing and hygiene, overdose reversals and a drug poisoning crisis. They note that Interior Health provides no funding to operators to hire nurses, mental health nurses, social workers and other health-related professionals.

“Finally, we beseech you as a health authority to stop discharging patients from hospital into our shelters when they are quite ill and non-ambulatory, have unresolved problematic substance use with complex health challenges, and are not connected to community health supports.”

The group highlights other challenges to the provision of their services, including B.C.’s labour shortage, an “enormous” investment into training at temporary winter shelters, a clientele with complex health issues and a leap from shelter to supportive housing that is “often too great.”

The letter makes 10 recommendations for improving the response to homelessness. The list includes moving some clients to hotels and motels over the winter, providing rent supplements that match the gap between shelter allowance rates and the real cost of rentals, investing in shelter diversion to prevent people from winding up homeless, creating a pipeline of young employees into the sector, providing funding to operators for health-related positions and reducing barriers for creating diverse housing options,

“We ask Interior Health and the Province to work with your municipal government and local organizations to develop immediate and long-term housing and recovery solutions to address the humanitarian crisis we are facing,” concludes the letter.

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Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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