By Mike Straus
The new homeless shelter in Emmanuel Church has only been open for three months, and already the shelter is straining its capacity to serve West Kelowna’s population of homeless people.
“The shelter is at maximum capacity almost every night,” said West Kelowna Shelter Society president Stephen Johnston. “We’re regularly turning people away because we just don’t have anywhere to put them. We’re only insured for 25 beds, and from our count, there are at least 40 to 50 homeless people in the community.”
Johnston says that the homeless shelter also feeds anywhere from 30 to 40 people per night through its meal program, which is accessible to homeless people regardless of whether or not they have a bed. He notes that capacity issues at shelters are not exclusive to West Kelowna, and says that no homeless shelter, no matter how well designed, will completely solve the homelessness problem.
“Up until now, people have been bussing over to Kelowna to access services there. But Kelowna’s shelters have been over capacity for some time. BC Housing had to open two more emergency shelters this winter just to handle the overflow. The solution isn’t more beds in a shelter – the solution is access to proper transitional housing.”
Johnston believes that West Kelowna’s homelessness problem has become more noticeable as the city has grown, and that this is part of a nationwide trend that is prompting discussions across the country on the topics of affordable housing, mental health, and other social issues.
The West Kelowna Shelter Society advocates Housing First as the ideal long-term solution. Housing First is an evidence-based approach that provides transitional housing to the homeless without demanding that participants first meet housing readiness requirements.
Last year, Medicine Hat, Alberta made worldwide headlines for being the first city in Canada to end homelessness. Medicine Hat accomplished this feat through a Housing First strategy, which creates significant cost savings – City of Medicine Hat data indicates that keeping the average homeless person on the street results in a cost to the taxpayer of $120,000 per year, compared to just $20,000 per year to provide that same homeless person with free housing.
Johnston says he likes the Medicine Hat approach, but executing it in West Kelowna may be a challenge:
“We’ll have to figure out which land is zoned properly in order to make that happen. The federal government has committed substantial funding toward this issue, and the provincial government is hard at work as well. What we need now is for the municipal government to get involved. ‘Not In My Backyard’ can’t be the statement that governs every parcel of land in the community.”
The West Kelowna Shelter Society will continue operating its shelter through to March 31. The society is actively looking for a permanent physical location for a shelter that can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But before the Shelter Society can expand its services, Johnston says it’ll require additional funds.
“We’re about to launch a fundraising campaign called A Mat For A Month. So people can donate $50 per month to help offset the cost of a bed. It doesn’t cover the entire cost of the bed for the month, but it’s a start.”
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