Vernon Newsmaker of 2017

Juliette Cunningham is a strong believer in social justice.

And the three-term city councillor has used her political post to rally for the marginalized residents of Vernon – with measurable success.

Cunningham has been partnering with various agencies throughout her time as a councillor to champion the cause of the city's homeless and working poor.

Her stance was not always a popular one with the community and even some of her council colleagues, but the 68 year old never wavered, making her the 2017 Castanet Vernon Newsmaker of the Year.

Homelessness has been a topic of heated discussion in Vernon for months.

Some want to drive them out of town, while others, like Cunningham look for a more caring solution to the problem.

“One of the biggest motivators for me around the issue of housing is everyone should have the dignity of a roof over their head,” she said. “That's just a fundamental to me. You can't expect anyone to be successful while dealing with mental health, addictions and poverty if they don't have a roof over their head. It's not realistic.”

Cunningham has come under fire at times for her stance, with some chastising her for being part of the problem, but Cunningham believes the work she has done benefits the entire community.

“Not doing anything costs us a lot more than housing people. It's a proven fact that the cost to the health care system, the penal system, the costs are far greater.

“The benefit of housing people is we created a better, safe community because sometimes those marginalized people do desperate things in order to meet their needs, or whatever. I have never condoned that, but I understand why it happens.”

Cunningham admits it can be very challening at times, but she is inspired every day by the people she works with.

“There are so many great leaders in the community. There's John Howard Society, Social Planning Council, North Okanagan Youth and Family Services, native housing – we have all of these. I am just one person that is part of a group that are really passionate about this,” said Cunningham, adding she uses her political post to champion the cause.

And the hard work of Cunningham and the various agencies in town is seeing from success.

Last month, the province announced it would invest $11 million in two affordable housing projects in the city.

Almost 100 modular-housing units will be built in Vernon starting in the New Year.

One is a new, permanent modular-housing project to be located on land owned by BC Housing at 27th Avenue and 35th Street which will provide 53 supportive housing units for people transitioning out of homelessness. These will be self-contained units with personal kitchens and washrooms.

As well, a new permanent modular shelter with approximately 45 beds will be constructed at 2307 43rd Street to expand capacity of the current homeless shelter and transitional housing development at Howard House.

Cunningham will continue to press for more affordable housing in Vernon and will keep working with various agencies to reach that goal.

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