COVID forces Kelowna charity to limit the number of homeless guests in its shelter amid early winter

·2 min read

Winter has come early to Kelowna, B.C., and there is not enough shelter space for homeless people to come inside because of reduced capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kelowna's Gospel Mission, a non-profit organization that has helped homeless people for more that 40 years, can accommodate only 60 people as the Okanagan city's temperature is expected to drop to a low of −10 overnight Saturday.

Last year the shelter offered 90 beds.

"Completely disheartened," said the organization's executive director Carmen Rempel to Sarah Penton, host of CBC's Radio West, after this week's snowfall.

"I have a lot of people that I care for that are sleeping outside right now."

There are at least 297 unhoused people in Kelowna, according to the latest report by the charitable Central Okanagan Foundation. Yet the city with a population of more than 130,000 currently has no winter shelter.

In January, the Metro Community church opened a temporary winter shelter called Welcome Inn with 40 beds as well as meals prepared by Gospel Mission, but it closed in March as the weather improved.

Photo by Jason Siebenga
Photo by Jason Siebenga

Physical distancing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus mean even charities with the resources to host campers must limit the number of guests they host.

"In years past when the weather got cold, we would be throwing mats on the ground, we'd be shuffling bunk beds and every spare corner of space," Rempel said. "But this year, because of COVID, we have a certain spacing that we have to provide between the beds, so I have a storage unit filled with mattresses and beds."

"It's not fun."

Rempel said the Gospel Mission has been working with B.C. Housing, the City of Kelowna and community partners since last year to provide adequate emergency winter shelter spaces, although the early snow this week caught them off guard.

"This is actually the earliest snow and the coldest October since 1971," she said.

She says another non-profit group, the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society, will soon announce plans to provide winter shelter spaces.

The City of Kelowna now allows homeless campers in its North End neighbourhood after dispersing a downtown tent city last November.

Brady Strachan / CBC
Brady Strachan / CBC