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Opinion  

Pressure of homelessness builds as poverty accelerates

Poverty and homelessness

What causes homelessness in Kelowna?

I get asked that question a lot and there isn’t a straightforward answer. Many people point to mental health and substance use. It’s true they can play a role, but there are people who experience homelessness who don’t struggle with substances or mental health, so it’s not the whole story. We also know that most people who drink alcohol, use drugs or encounter mental health issues never experience homelessness.

Poor physical health, discrimination, trauma and disability can lead to homelessness. As can where you live, the social supports available to you, your family structure, your level of education and even plain, dumb luck. Bad things happen sometimes for no good reason.

There’s one factor I want to pay special attention to here. It’s the most important one: Poverty.

Money provides a safety net when things go wrong. Imagine the townhome you’re renting goes up for sale and you have to move. You discover rent has increased more than 20% and that’s only in the last year. Can you make that work with your budget? Maybe your 2007 Toyota Camry that always starts, suddenly doesn’t. It’s $1,500 to fix it and you no longer have a way to get to your worksite.

There are a million hiccups that can happen and, when you don’t have savings and you’re struggling to keep up with the bills, even a tiny disruption can spell disaster.

It's true that many people who live in poverty never experience homelessness, but we’re seeing more and more people in Kelowna arrive into homelessness for purely financial reasons. It’s a troubling trend.

You may have seen it for yourself in the cars parked outside of big-box stores overnight, packed full of someone’s belongings, a clear sign it’s serving as their home. It might be home for a whole family. You may have a friend or family member who’s had to crash on your couch until they get back on their feet. It’s heartbreaking, but stories like these are becoming a lot more common not only here in Kelowna, but across Canada.

These are people who have never experienced homelessness before and never imagined they would. They’re terrified, they’re ashamed, and they often blame themselves. They shouldn’t.

In 2021, Living Wage for Families BC pegged Kelowna’s living wage at $18.49. This is well above B.C.’s current $15.65 minimum wage, but it’s also miles below today’s actual living wage. We see it in the grocery store, at the gas pump, and nearly everywhere else. Everything seems to cost so much more than it did last year.

We’re in a critical time where the economic dice we’ve thrown has landed and we’re feeling the effects in our community. People in Kelowna are squeezed, and the result is poverty that’s turning into homelessness, and that means suffering.

These negative social trends come to us as a result of systems failures and misguided policies that often date back decades. It’s time to change the way we think about poverty and the people who experience it. It’s time we stop blaming poverty on the poor.

So, what can we do about poverty in our community?

There are many things you can do as an individual. You can learn more about social issues like homelessness and poverty, you can donate to, or volunteer with, organizations that work to improve conditions for people experiencing poverty and homelessness, and you can support projects, policies and politicians who are focused on solving these issues.

If you’re an employer, see if you can increase employee pay, especially if they are lower wage earners. We’ve seen some great examples of local businesses taking steps to improve conditions in this challenging time.

One of the simplest, but most profound things you can do right now is to simply show kindness and compassion.

If you see someone who’s struggling, treat them like you would anyone else – flash them a warm smile and say “hello.” You’d be surprised how much of a difference this can make. It’s a small act but it has big meaning. It shows that person that they’re still welcome, that even if they’ve lost their home, they haven’t lost their community.

At the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society, we’ve had our Face Homelessness public awareness campaign underway since the beginning of April. We’ve highlighted the impact stigma has on people experiencing homelessness through videos, articles, and stories of real people in our community. Stigma creates real harm.

This is true for homelessness and it’s also true for poverty. It can prolong, perpetuate and worsen both experiences.

Let’s make our community better by solving stigma. Find out how at journeyhome.ca/stigma.

Stephanie Gauthier is the executive director of the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society.



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