The issue of homelessness in Kelowna was brought into sharp focus last winter during successive extreme winter events.
In April, city council learned the city had received $1.2 million to provide critical services and supports for people sheltering outdoors. The separate $3.2-million Kelowna Outdoor Sheltering Strategy created a multi-faceted strategy that includes the City of Kelowna and key community partners for overnight outdoor shelter, operations of overnight and day-use sites, community integration and an anti-stigma campaign.
Now that spring has sprung, Castanet asked city officials how that money was spent and an assessment of the strategy's success.
"The City (of Kelowna), BC Housing and other partners continue to work together to increase the number of indoor sheltering spaces available in Kelowna. However, the demand for shelter space continues to grow faster than the availability of new spaces and labour resources, which resulted in people sheltering outside during the 2022-2023 winter," said Tom Wilson, the city's media relations manager, who assembled the responses from numerous departments which implemented the strategy.
"Outdoor sheltering is not a solution to homelessness. The City continues to work with partners to develop solutions to the ongoing housing crisis and is committed to its legal obligation to not prohibit outdoor overnight sheltering when shelters are full. The City has developed a designated outdoor sheltering site near the intersection of Richter Street and the (Okanagan) Rail Trail, and collaborates with partners to ensure people sheltering there have access to health and other supports."
On behalf of the city, Wilson thanked BC Housing and the provincial government whose funding made many of the initiatives detailed below possible:
Interagency collaboration: Representatives from the City of Kelowna, RCMP, Kelowna Fire Department, the local homeless-serving sector, BC Housing and the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society were in continuous communication and collaboration throughout the winter, working together to activate extreme-weather procedures, said Wilson.
Expanded emergency shelter spaces: The number of emergency shelter beds increased from 238 in early November to 268 at the end of February. Staffing shortages and operator capacity emerged as the main impediment to expanding emergency shelter capacity while the shortage of physical indoor shelter spaces became a more secondary factor, he said.
Indoor day-use site: It provided a place where people who shelter outside had access to warm spaces, food and water, increased access to health and social services, and peer support. It was managed by Metro Community Services, located at 1262 St. Paul St., and operated from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (depending on staff capacity), Sundays through Fridays.
Shelter Dashboard: The online Shelter Dashboard was launched in December 2022 to help frontline workers and responders determine the availability of indoor shelter spaces and direct people sheltering outdoors to those available spaces.
"Thanks to the Dashboard and shelter operators that kept it up to date, frontline RCMP officers were able to redirect dozens of individuals sheltering outside into indoor shelter spaces throughout the winter months," said Wilson.
Thermal shelters: As part of a pilot project, 27 thermal shelters (for 34 people) were distributed at the designated outdoor sheltering site twice this winter during periods of cold weather: at the end of January and again at the end of February. Distribution and education on use of the shelters was supported by the Lived Experience Circle on Homelessness (LECoH). "The City received mixed feedback on the thermal shelters from people who used them, mostly relating to the size, design and effectiveness of the shelters," said Wilson.
Warming bus: A 24-passenger warming bus was parked overnight at the designated outdoor sheltering site on four occasions: at the beginning and end of December, the end of January and the end of February. "The warming bus was well-received by people who sheltered outside and its operating hours were eventually extended due to demand," he said.
Enhanced outreach: Frontline agencies including community outreach agencies, Commissionaires, Downtown on Call, city bylaw services and RCMP conducted enhanced welfare checks during cold weather. If an individual was encountered in obvious medical distress, they were connected with Emergency Health Services.
Warming supplies: Community outreach agencies, Commissionaires, Downtown on Call, bylaw services, LECoH, RCMP and Kelowna Fire Department distributed blankets, mitts, socks, sleeping bags, tents and other warming supplies. BC Housing funding allowed thousands of dollars of warming supplies to be distributed, complemented by community donations provided by Kelowna’s Gospel Mission Thrift Store, he said.
Kelowna RCMP efforts: The detachment is the only patrolling outreach partner able to assist and support people sheltering outside 24 hours a day. Throughout the winter, RCMP provided support, including rides to shelters and warming sites, and distribution of warm clothing, tents and sleeping bags. "Many acts of kindness by our RCMP officers were recognized by our citizens including a simple gesture of warming someone’s hands and providing them gloves," said Wilson.
"Providing shelter for people experiencing homelessness does not stop after the winter season; this is a constant process that we work on year-round with local governments and communities," said a BC Housing spokesperson.
"Shelters, while important, are only a temporary measure to address homelessness, which is why we focus on moving people in to permanent housing. Since 2017, we have opened almost 800 affordable and supportive homes in Kelowna, with another 380 on the way."
BC Housing says staff work year-round with operating societies and municipalities like the City of Kelowna to assess what the needs are in each community for additional shelter spaces and other homeless support services, such as supportive housing and outreach services.
All shelters in Kelowna are currently operating year-round. Kelowna continues to provide a combined 268 spaces for people in need at the Bay Avenue, Richter Street, Cornerstone, Kelowna Gospel Mission and Alexander Gardner Safe Centre shelters. BC Housing continues to work with municipalities and other partners including the City of Kelowna to identify potential housing projects across the housing spectrum, including supportive housing, to move people from shelters into long-term housing solutions, said the spokesperson.
At a provincial level, BC Housing is reviewing its Extreme Weather Response (EWR) shelter program – shelters that open overnight during harsh weather conditions throughout the winter season – to determine where there are gaps in services and where improvements to the program can be made. Although Kelowna does not have EWR shelters in operation, this review could be useful to help inform Kelowna’s and surrounding communities’ shelter strategy for next winter season."
Part two tomorrow: feedback from social service organizations and unofficial community groups which stepped in.