Recently, Kelowna was trending across social media for all the wrong reasons, stemming from a video shared by Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre, which simply showed the homeless encampment on Kelowna’s portion of the Okanagan Rail Trail.
While it should serve as a wake-up call for the province and the federal government, I know it won’t.
The encampment site, required to exist due to law, is home to approximately 174 people, according to Kelowna’s Gospel Mission. The site, which I drive by frequently on the way to my parent’s home, has been steadily growing for the last several years with little to no action from the federal or provincial governments.
Kelowna deserves action.
The conversation around homelessness in B.C. is often centred around Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Those conversations neglect the reality homelessness is a challenge in many communities across Canada. However, some communities bear the brunt more than others.
In Kelowna, for example, we have generally warm weather and the designated encampment site is close to services yet sheltered from much of the public. Many Interior Health services that individuals rely on are focused in Kelowna.
The provision of affordable housing and addiction treatment is primarily the responsiblity of the provincial government. In the Central Okanagan, our MLAs are all from BC United (formerly the B.C. Liberals), with the exception of Vernon—Monashee NDP MLA Harwinder Sandhu.
With the governing NDP holding very few seats in our region, (the premier and cabinet ministers) don’t make the trip out to our communities very often anymore.
In September 2022, the provincial government announced Kelowna would receive 20 new complex care beds. That’s right, 20 beds. When we have a growing mental health and addictions crisis that’s fuelling a homelessness crisis (and a housing crisis that’s fuelling a mental health and addiction crisis) 20 beds is quite literally a drop in the bucket.
Kelowna’s former mayor, Colin Basran, prided himself on working collaboratively with the provincial to get these complex care beds, and he was successful. But if working collaboratively with the provincial government over eight years leads to the creation of just 20 beds, then it’s time to change strategy. It’s time for Kelowna to get vocal.
What’s going on here is not acceptable. It’s not fair to residents, business owners and those living on the rail trail and at other informal housing locations. We deserve and require immediate investments from upper levels of government.
For starters, Kelowna needs more than 20 new complex care beds. The provincial government must create regional recovery centres across B.C. Building facilities that treat patients with severe and complex mental health and addictions challenges, like the Red Fish Healing Centre in Coquitlam, are essential. People are struggling and need help. Decriminalizing drugs and not providing people with addictions support is simply wrong.
Kelowna also needs more shelter beds. A little known fact is the reason we must allow a designated camping site on the rail trail is because there are not enough shelter beds in Kelowna to house our homeless population overnight.
Any efforts to end the encampment on the rail trail must be centred around the fact that as long as there are not enough beds, people will be allowed, and in some cases forced to, camp outdoors.
Finally, Kelowna needs access to housing funding, and we need it rapidly. The federal government launched a program through CMHC a few years ago called the Rapid Housing Initiative.
The idea was to create new affordable housing within one year of receiving funding.
There have been three rounds of this funding to date but none to Kelowna. In fact, Kelowna is not even eligible. Communities like Burnaby, St. John’s, Charlottetown, Windsor, Saskatoon and more are specifically eligible for this program but Kelowna is shutout despite being the 10th most expensive city in Canada to rent an apartment.
Quietly playing nice with the provincial and the federal governments has not worked in our favour. Kelowna has a growing homelessness problem, not enough shelter beds, very few recovery beds and is shutout of major affordable housing funding streams. It’s time to shift strategies.
While Poilievre’s video of the rail trail does not depict all of Kelowna, it does depict a reality for too many of our residents. We need to get upper levels of government to pay attention, pay up and take action.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.