Story of the year: Kelowna’s homeless crisis

From changes in policy to public reaction, the entire city felt the impact of homelessness in 2019.

The complicated and often contentious issue of homelessness made headlines throughout the year, making it the Kelowna Capital News top story for 2019.

The year began with the Journey Home Society continuing to move forward with its five-year goal of housing Kelowna’s homeless population.

Heath House opened in January 2019, following the opening of Hearthstone three months earlier.

While the two facilities, which contain more than 80 supportive homes, helped many get a roof over their head, it did not open their doors without controversy.

Protests that began in late 2018 carried over into 2019 as more supportive housing projects were approved.

The issue boiled over in June, after the city’s approval of a “wet” housing project on McCurdy Road in Rutland.

In response, residents created a petition to try and stop the development, which subsequently garnered over 14,000 signatures from residents in and around the Rutland area.

The city stepped in to try and appease residents’ concerns and changed McCurdy’s operation model in July. When it is completed next year, the site will not allow illegal drugs on-site.

While Rutland residents fought the city and province over supportive housing projects, the city’s deep-rooted Leon Avenue encampment grew throughout the year, reaching its peak in November.

During that month, a Surrey-based advocacy group called Alliance Against Displacement held a press conference on behalf of the people camping along the street.

According to the organization, people experiencing homelessness on Leon were fed up with their poor living conditions and demanded the city take action. The group also released a list of four demands, which included being able to access electricity to run heaters in their tents.

Despite the demands, the city didn’t appear ready to change its approach, until a few days after news broke that several businesses along Leon Avenue were shutting down and moving to other parts of the city.

Just as things looked to be heading from bad to worse, the city unilaterally announced on Nov. 26 that people camped out on Leon would be moved to two temporary overnight shelter sites on Recreation Avenue and the base of Knox Mountain.

The sites, unlike Leon, included several new rules, including only being available between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m., making residents pack up each morning and set-up again every night. The city also promised to provide washroom facilities and extra security.

While initially met with approval from businesses along Leon, residents living near Knox Mountain gathered to express their frustration about the last-minute notice and potential increase of crime and drugs in the area.

“I would’ve liked to have a bit of warning to install security lights or security cameras,” said resident Tess Rose.

“The fact that we were given no heads up really disappoints me. I’m really disappointed in city council and whoever made the decision.”

She said her neighbourhood is traditionally a safe area with fairly low levels of crime.

While residents protested, those experiencing homelessness were also not happy about the new locations.

“We’re so far away from resources. It’s a long walk from Recreation Avenue to the Mission. We have to pack everything up and put it all in a Sea can, then take it out and set up at night again,” she said.

“We can only take our stuff out at 7 p.m. but the Mission closes at 6 p.m., so we can’t even do our laundry during the day.”

Sonja Menyes, director of volunteers at Kelowna’s Gospel Mission, said in the days following the move they noticed people sleeping rough in doorways and different alleys throughout the downtown core.

In early December, BC Housing, the John Howard Society of Okanagan and Kootenay and the City of Kelowna announced a new partnership to provide 40 beds at a city-owned property.

The site will be operated by the John Howard Society and funded by the provincial government.

The building, located at 555 Fuller Ave., which opened a few weeks later, will temporarily house 40 people who already have beds at Cornerstone and the Kelowna Gospel Mission to free up space at those two shelters.

“The temporary housing will be available until March 31,” said Michelle LaBoucane, a representative for the John Howard Society of Okanagan & Kootenay.

After that, she said those living at 555 Fuller Ave. will then be moved into the McIntosh Road Supportive Housing so the building can be demolished to make way for affordable housing.

In addition to the new shelter on Fuller Avenue, on Dec. 10 the province announced a temporary wet housing shelter would soon open in downtown Kelowna.

The new shelter will be located at 1265 Ellis St., near BNA Brewing Co., and is expected to open its doors in late December or early January.

The shelter will initially open with 20 beds with the possibility of expanding to 40 beds if needed.

Two local residents, Tara Tschritter, who previously managed Inn from the Cold, and Jason Siebenga, the chairman of Metro Community Church, are spearheading the initiative.

Siebenga said he and Tschritter reached out to Journey Home and BC Housing after becoming deeply troubled by the fact that so many people are sleeping outside in subzero temperatures.

“Like many of you, I have watched this crisis unfold from the warmth and comfort of my home over the past few months,” said Tschritter.

“With funding and a great location we are confident that volunteers and shelter staff will emerge from our compassionate community.”

While it appeared things were heading in the right direction, the reality of the situation hit home on Dec. 16 when Shane Bourdin, a young father of three, died while living at the temporary homeless camp at Recreation Avenue.

“I’m so angry I can’t even cry right now. My son died being out here,” said Bourdin’s mother Theresa Whittier at a candlelight vigil at the camp for her son on Dec. 18.

“Now that he’s died, the city is rushing to put all these people indoors. Why did this not happen while my son was still alive?”

Where are we headed?

Functional zero homelessness.

That’s what’s possible, according to Journey Home’s new executive director Stephanie Ball, by 2024.

Functional zero homelessness means that the situation has become manageable, with enough beds and services to house those who want to be housed.

“My experience provides me with the depth of practice that is critical in understanding the complexity of homelessness and poverty on a multifaceted level, and the acumen to effectively convene partners, stakeholders and investors in achieving the targets and timelines necessary to reach functional zero by 2024,” said Ball.

“There are times when I’m sure the community feels divided over what immediate solutions should be, but in a broader sense, ending homelessness matters to each and every person.

“There is no apathy, and that is incredible, rare, and another reason I’m thrilled to be here in this role, and as a community member. There is an eclectic, organic way that this community ebbs and flows. It’s fabulous to be a part of the Kelowna vibe that you feel when you’re immersed in this community.”

Currently, there are three more provincially-funded supportive housing projects that are in progress in the Kelowna area that will provide more than 150 units for people experiencing homelessness in the community.

Two of the projects are expected to open next spring, while the third will be ready in 2021.

BC Housing said it is also currently providing rent subsidies for 184 people or households who were experiencing homelessness, enabling them to live and rent in the private market.

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