Stakeholders try new approach to Kelowna's homeless situation

New homeless approach

The City of Kelowna is trying something different to combat Kelowna's ongoing homeless issue by starting the Paid Employment Opportunities for People with Lived Experience, or PEOPLE Employment Services.

The move comes as the city tries to destigmatize homelessness, mental health challenges and addiction.

The idea is to partner with Urban Matters and the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society to provide training and employment for individuals with lived experience to become "peer navigators."

The City of Kelowna and Urban Matters were awarded a three-year grant from Health Canada to establish a peer navigator program this summer.

The program is designed to find people who have experience with homelessness and train them to work with people who are struggling on the streets and want help.

“Peer navigators are engaged in meaningful work that benefits from their individual abilities and interests and have a significant impact,” said Dhorea Ramanula, Executive Director of PEOPLE. “Peer navigators listen and respond in a way that makes people feel comfortable. It makes a difference when you see someone who has had experiences you are having. It uplifts people to be met where they are, with no stigma. And in return, the peer navigators gain self-confidence and personal satisfaction in having a positive role to play.”

The program is already underway and the first cohort of 30 participants have completed learning modules related to communications, conflict resolution, Indigenous histories, financial literacy and harm reduction practices.

"The participants are now moving into paid employment opportunities that are supporting inclusion, including peer navigation, community beautification, community ambassador roles and more," says  Ramanula.

The program is designed to not only help the homeless but also the "peer navigators" as well.

“It’s one thing for me to stand up and say this is the impact of homelessness on someone’s life, but it is more powerful hearing from someone with lived experience,” says Sue Wheeler, Social Development Manager for the City of Kelowna. “I have witnessed audiences so engaged you can hear a pin drop when a courageous LECoH member shares their story with the goal of breaking down the myths that fuel stigma.”

The program is being heralded as a step in the right direction. Wheeler says she supports the vision and hopes that "individuals with lived experience will have a seat at decision making tables as voting members and educators – who will be recognized as equals, and whose voices will be heard."

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