Kelowna has embarked on an ambitious five-year, $46.7 million plan to address homelessness in the city called the Journey Home Initiative. —Image: Carli Berry/Capital News

Year in Review: Homelessness was the top story in Kelowna in 2018

City approved ambitious five-year, $46.7 million initiative to address homelessness

Homelessness, and the many related impacts of housing in the community, was the top story in Kelowna for 2018.

While Kelowna city council approved and started to set in motion its ambitious $46.7 million Journey Home initiative to address homelessness, other housing stories, such as an onslaught of high-rise residential development downtown, a minuscule rental vacancy rate for much of the year, the arrival of the first purpose-built rental developments in several years, high rents, controversial social housing projects, homeless shelters and even the province’s controversial Speculation Tax, all grabbed headlines.

But for the city, the Journey Home initiative to address homelessness was the biggest story.

After years of talk, an exhaustive consultation process initiated by the city in 2016 wrapped up in late 2017 and earlier this year, the five-year plan it created was approved.

The plan calls for 300 units of long-term housing in buildings with supports on site for people with complex needs such as mental health, addictions and other medical needs.

Based on a “housing first” model that places those in need in housing before providing support programs, the initiative also calls for 500 new program spaces to help those being housed, at a cost of $26 million. Programs will include assertive community treatment, intensive care management, rapid rehousing and prevention.

The initiative is being spearheaded by what the city describes as a “neutral backbone organization.” The Journey Home Society, co-ordinating the funding, system planning, capacity building, leadership, accountability, development innovation and partnerships that will be needed to make the plan work.

But those in charge of the initiative have made it clear—city action alone will not be enough for success. It needs buy-in, participation and money from the community, the province and the federal government.

“We have an amazing opportunity to pull the community together and find creative solutions to challenges that our whole country is facing,” said Gaelene Askland, the new executive director of the Journey Home Society.

“We have a significant task ahead of us but the strategy is in place and the time is right to get it done.”

Aspects of the initiative, however, are already controversial. Part of the plan calls for new supportive housing by B.C. Housing and some of those have run up against opposition by residents of the neighbourhoods where they are planned to go.

B.C. Housing opened two new supportive housing projects in the city in 2018, with a total of 88 units—one on Commercial Avenue between Enterprise Way and Highway 97 and another across the highway in the former North Pointe Motel. Both are “harm reduction” facilities where drugs are allowed to be consumed on site. And that has raised concerns.

The provincial housing agency says it is in discussions with the city about 102 more supportive housing units in Kelowna for 2019.

And a building to house 48 of them, proposed for Agassiz Road in the Midtown area of the city, has also met with staunch opposition.

Area residents, mainly seniors, say they are worried about drug dealers moving into the area as a result, about their safety and adverse effects on their property values. Protests against the project have been held, and what promises to be a contentious public hearing by city council to rezone land for the project is slated for Jan. 17.

The residents even formed a new neighbourhood association to fight the project.

Recognizing the impact of the city’s attempt to address homelessness, Mayor Colin Basran warned his incoming council it will face some of its biggest challenges in upcoming term dealing with the placement of the supportive housing required to complete the Journey Home vision.

The city’s attempt to address homelessness comes at a time when there has been a resurgence in purpose-built rentals in Kelowna, and plans for several high-rise condominium towers in the downtown core, the North End and the Mission. Five of those towers are already under construction in the downtown area.

Meanwhile, the completion of the first purpose-built rentals apartments seen in the Central Okanagan in many years helped ease the tight rental vacancy rate, which sat around 0.6 per cent for much of the year, to just under two per cent by year’s end.

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