'Crisis' for senior housing: More Penticton seniors on the brink of homelessness with lack of affordability

'Crisis' for senior housing

Casey Richardson

“They also need to have a good quality of life, and it should be provided for them.”

A recent report from United Way BC which shines the light on seniors being on the brink of homelessness comes as no surprise for a Penticton non-profit.

The report titled Aging in Uncertainty: The Growing Housing Crisis for BC Seniors was jointly released by United Way and a coalition of B.C. non profit community-based seniors organizations last week.

The goal is to bring a spotlight to the critical issue of “seniors struggling to secure affordable housing in the face of soaring living costs, stagnant government retirement incomes and a shortage of affordable housing.”

Tanya Behardien, executive director for OneSky Community Resources, said Penticton has a severe lack of housing resources.

“What's really interesting is that in 2011, was the last actually affordable housing for seniors that was actually built in Penticton,” she added, noting that the population of seniors has since doubled in town since then.

“I think sometimes older adults, seniors are not as recognized for some of the things that they're struggling with. We've seen and heard from some of our outreach workers that seniors are living in their vehicles and going into places where it's not safe for them.”

Laura Kadowaki, Program and Operations Coordinator with United Way, said the report aims to raise awareness that the senior population is seriously struggling during this affordability crisis.

“For the research, what we wanted to do was bring together the various statistical data that's available that can help to illustrate the scope of the crisis, but also to hear more from the frontline service providers specifically about what they're seeing on the ground within their communities,” she said.

“They've been seeing more seniors than ever before, who are coming to them and accessing their services, because they're finding themselves homeless or on the verge of homelessness.”

Kadowaki said when she was conducting interviews, what stood out was the mental health impacts being seen in seniors due to housing insecurity and experiences of homelessness.

“When I was talking to a frontline service provider, and she said that she estimated about half of her clients had at some point spoken to her about the fact that they didn't want to live anymore, or were contemplating suicide, because they felt so hopeless and demoralized with their current situation, and just felt like they couldn't really get any help that they needed to address the issue.”

Often the seniors that they are seeing were reported to have been working all their lives.

“Maybe they're in a lower income job. But really, they had no reason to expect that when they retired, they were going to find themselves homeless,” Kadowaki said.

According to United Way, in 2020, one in four seniors in BC had after-tax incomes below $21,800 — almost $10,000 below the minimum wage.

“I think one of the things that we're hearing from seniors is just the challenge around the cost of rent. And if you are a senior and you're living on the government benefits, you're getting about $1,800 a month, and if your rent is $1400 or $1500, that's not a lot to live on,” Behardien said.

United Way BC believes the government needs to start thinking about how to build more subsidized housing geared towards income, guaranteeing the renter pays no more than 30 per cent of their income.

“Our seniors population has increased by 20 per cent, over 2017 to 2022. And at the same time, access to seniors subsidized housing…has only increased by about 0.1 per cent,” Kadowaki said.

In Penticton, roughly 21 per cent of the senior renter households are spending 50 per cent or more of their income on housing.

"Penticton, unfortunately, is doing worse than some other areas in the province," Kadowaki said.

Behardien said the government does have a program in place to assist the senior population with Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters, which is run by BC Housing and provides monthly cash payments to eligible B.C. seniors who pay more than 30 per cent of their before-tax income for rent. However, the amount they’re given may not actually be helpful.

“It’s been the same for way too long,” she said. “I think government has a mechanism in place where they can reevaluate and recalibrate the shelter aid for elderly renters, and maybe do something there quickly.”

“The rental subsidy currently doesn't align with what's happening in the actual market,” Kadowaki added.

“So there's rent ceilings on how much they'll subsidize in terms of your rent. And the rent ceiling for the Kelowna, Penticton [and] surrounding areas is only about $767.”

With the release of the report, there’s a hope that locals will advocate for change.

“It's always important to talk to the people in government who can influence these decisions. And I think it's also about people sharing their stories,” Behardien said.

“We're hoping that the various stakeholders, so all levels of government, health authorities, community based senior services, housing providers, all of these different groups are going to be able to see the recommendations, and hopefully come together for some coordinated action to address some of these issues,” Kadowaki said.

OneSky continues to work with United Way to provide a suite of services for seniors called Better at Home.

“We provide a lot of supports, non-medical supports, to help seniors stay in their own homes, help them be socially connected, help them to get to and from medical appointments, access to nutrition and food, a whole variety of services, light housekeeping, like yard work and things like that,” Behardien said.

“I can tell you that with the growing population of seniors — 31.1 per cent in Penticton — we have a hard time keeping up with the demand for service in that area.”

Kadowaki said Penticton’s 100 more homes initiative is a great example of a variety of stakeholders coming together and being able to actually take action in order to increase the availability of affordable housing.

“We're really hoping that this will raise awareness about the issue, because I think seniors as a population haven't been given as much attention when it comes to homelessness.”

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