B.C. Interior non-profits say opening more winter shelters is futile without more housing

Beds at the now-closed Welcome Inn temporary winter shelter in Kelowna, B.C. Non-profit shelter operators have written a joint letter to the province and municipalities asking for more housing for people living with homelessness and addiction. (Photo by Jason Siebenga - image credit)
Beds at the now-closed Welcome Inn temporary winter shelter in Kelowna, B.C. Non-profit shelter operators have written a joint letter to the province and municipalities asking for more housing for people living with homelessness and addiction. (Photo by Jason Siebenga - image credit)

A number of shelter operators across B.C.'s Okanagan and Thompson regions have sent a strongly-worded letter to the province, municipal governments and Interior Health demanding more housing with wraparound services for people living with homelessness.

In the open letter, leaders of non-profits Nicola Valley Shelter and Support Society in Merritt, John Howard Society of Okanagan and Kootenay in Kelowna, ASK Wellness Society in Kamloops, Penticton and District Society for Community Living, Kelowna Gospel Mission and Turning Points Collaborative Society in Vernon said running temporary shelters for another winter without the intention to eventually house the vulnerable population is unsustainable.

"The cycle of bringing challenging persons in from the cold, to shelter them in the most basic of temporary shelters, to provide the barest of supports, to make limited investment in health, skills and real housing and then to have them exited back to the streets on the first day of spring with a tent and well wishes has become an exercise in futility at best.

"While it may provide an escape from the cold, it is a sickeningly purposeless proposition to consider this a solution to the humanitarian crisis we are facing," they said in a 2,000-word letter.

Homeless shelters costly and ineffective, operators say

This letter was sent with the early arrival of winter in the B.C. Interior communities, where nighttime temperatures have dropped to -13 C this week.

John Howard Society executive director Patricia Bacon says she and other signatories had had conversations with the authorities they wrote to but felt they haven't had a "real legitimate seat at the table" to talk about what workable solutions to homelessness should look like.

"The shelters should be on the continuum of care and housing and support, and instead, it's become this thing that we do every fall where we are asking people to say 'let's open up more shelters,'" Bacon told Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South.

"They're costly. They're ineffective. No meaningful outcomes happen in these shelters," she said. "It is unconscionable to say, 'Oh well, let's keep opening up shelter beds and calling it good.' It's not good. It's terrible."

The signatories said they won't stop operating shelters, but they have made a list of recommendations to provide better support for people living with homelessness and addictions.

Among them, the provision of robust health, mental health and service navigation supports to shelters where homeless individuals can be stabilized and then quickly moved into supportive housing where these supports are continued.

The non-profits are also recommending rent supplements to close the gap between shelter allowance rates and the real cost of rentals and funding for workers to help clients with their housing search and help them work with landlords — funding that would continue that support once individuals are housed so they are able to navigate services and systems.

Another recommendation would have municipalities and B.C. Housing open hotels and motels for homeless persons with a higher level of independence.

36,000 homes being built, B.C. housing says

Sara Goldvine, B.C. Housing's vice president of communications and public affairs, says the provincial agency has been working with the signatories on a regular basis, and it has more than 36,000 homes that are being built across the province, including 1,800 in Kelowna and 1,300 in Kamloops.

Goldvine says the provincial housing provider is continuing to look for opportunities to extend leases of hotel and motel rooms in order to house people experiencing homelessness, but she admits it's not a long-term solution.

"We also need to recognize that ultimately the owners of those facilities will make the choices about what is best for them, and sometimes some of them are choosing to return to tourism," she said.

In a written statement to CBC News, Interior Health wrote it takes the concerns outlined in the letter seriously and has reached out to shelter operators in order to better understand their perspective.

"We are committed to ongoing engagement with these operators to ensure the health-care needs of people accessing these housing and shelter services are being met," the health authority wrote.

CBC News has contacted the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions for comment.