Homes First

Kelowna Gets Serious About Homelessness and Maybe Housing Needs Overall

The strategy is comprehensive and involves a large amount of provincial and federal funding

Earlier this week the City of Kelowna announced a draft of its strategy to control and prevent homelessness. The “Journey Home” Task Force has been working on a plan over the past couple years and they have estimated that

…about 5,000 people need help with housing in the city, including 150 or so chronically homeless, another 200 who experience episodic homelessness, some 1,600 who are in transition and a further 2,900 Kelowna residents who are at high risk of homelessness. (from Infotel)

The strategy is comprehensive and involves a large amount of provincial and federal funding. It will take 47 million dollars, with half coming from the feds and the province combined and the rest from Kelowna’s non-profit, voluntary sector.

This type of commitment is what happens when government finally acknowledges the scope and the roots of the problem, and not just the severity of its symptoms – things like needles in parks or hundreds of men and women sleeping on the streets, which while serious on their own, are the tip of a pretty big iceberg.

This approach of the task force is noteworthy in that it does away with a compartmentalized perspective of homelessness as an isolated problem, and instead considers it as part of a wider ecosystem. A system affected by an economic and demographic situation that has resulted in an unhealthy housing stock that doesn’t fit the needs of its citizens.

Informing this task force – as well as the Healthy Housing Strategy – is the Housing Needs Assessment (HNA). This is a pretty detailed study that recognizes the gaps and shortcomings of our housing – whether they be the dominance of an unpredictable secondary rental market rather than a solid primary rental market; a duplication of services in response to homelessness; a need for more precise data collection; extended stays at short-term support facilities; a fast growing divide between income and housing costs; and a next to non-existent vacancy rate. Moreover it understands that movement in one part of the housing market can deeply affect others. For example, a lack of affordable or available rentals can push folks into the supported housing sector which then puts strain on those relying on that, eventually leading to more and more housing-vulnerable or homeless citizens.

So the name of the game of this assessment is prevention and resilience. They do this in two major ways: one is a perspective of “Housing First” – that shelter is a human right and that we must house people even before dealing with underlying factors like addiction, mental health, discrimination, employment; and second, through what they call the “wheelhouse”. The wheelhouse is a framework for understanding that the issue doesn’t exist on a continuum from homeless to ownership with a one-way trajectory as the goal (this is capitalism after all), and that citizens will likely move around this wheelhouse depending on micro and macro circumstances. The aim here is that there is support at every one of these sectors of the wheelhouse – a healthy housing stock.

The Wheelhouse promotes equity and inclusion, recognizing that our housing stock needs to reflect the diverse needs of Kelowna residents (socioeconomic, demographic) and that people may move across categories of the Wheelhouse throughout their lives. 

It’s certainly promising that the city is getting real, no matter how dire the present starting point is. Given that Kelowna will need to raise a lot of money to make the remainder of the budget, here’s hoping the present and future council and mayor can provide strong leadership and get a strong buy-in from the community, and moreover prioritize the developers and other stakeholders in the housing community to address all Kelownians’ housing needs.