New short-term housing aims to get people off Kelowna streets — but city still without winter shelter

With falling temperatures and growing controversy about how to help people who are homeless in Kelowna, hopes were high that an announcement on Tuesday from the B.C. government would bring much-needed relief.

This morning, B.C. Housing shared there will soon be 40 short-term beds available for people in the central Okanagan city waiting for supportive housing.

However, there still isn't a winter shelter in Kelowna, where nighttime lows hit -11 C last week.

B.C. Housing said it's renovating a city-owned building downtown to create "bridge housing," which means that people over the age of 19 who are already staying in shelters and waiting to move into supportive housing units that are under construction, can apply to be chosen for beds at this facility. 

The hope is the new beds at 555 Fuller Ave. will have a domino effect to help get people off the chilly streets: those who move from full overnight shelters to supportive housing, will in turn free up 40 spaces in the Cornerstone or Gospel Mission shelters for people who are living in tents.

Photo by Google Street View

"[It's] too early to tell right now if those 40 spaces are going to be adequate in terms of the number of people we've seen sleeping outside," said mayor Colin Basran. 

Those tents, that until recently lined Leon Ave. downtown, have become increasingly contentious in the southern Interior city.

Last week, the city of Kelowna shut down the downtown encampment, citing safety concerns, and opened two parks a few kilometres away for people to set up tents in at night. At its peak, the downtown tent city had more than 100 people. 

Ann estimated 40 to 50 people are sleeping in tents in one of the designated parks behind the Kelowna Curling Club. The other one still remains empty. 

The city has funding from B.C. Housing for a winter shelter, but hasn't been able to find a location for one.

Not solution some were hoping for

While some of the people living in the tents in the park said they would take a spot in a shelter if one opens up in a "heartbeat", others were not as excited about the announcement.

"That's not a solution. That is not what we want,"  said Derek Foreel.

Foreel said some have been kicked out of the Cornerstone and Gospel Mission Shelters, and others don't feel safe there because of past arguments they've had with other residents, or their things have been stolen.

"Why not just put the people that are actually on the streets into a place and throw some mats on the floor and we'll be happy," he said.

Ivy Mason, who also sleeps in a tent, said the rules of the shelter would determine if she'd want to go. 

"A lot of the reason being of why we do tent city or why we choose to stay out here is because of the rules, like curfew or visitors or that sort of thing," she said.

"It's not just about sleeping inside, it's the building restrictions."

Brady Strachan/CBC

'We're not done' says mayor

The law in B.C. requires the city allow temporary camping in designated parks or public spaces if there is insufficient housing or shelter space for those who are homeless. If there are enough shelter spaces, the city could shut down the park to overnight campers. 

However, Basran says it's too soon to tell if the city will close the park.

"We know that there's probably more than [40] who will still need a place to stay," said mayor Colin Basran. "So we're not done by any means." 

Basran said housing is the responsibility of the province, and the city is working with them and community partners still to try and address the shortage of shelter spots. 

Dawn Himer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Okanagan and Kootenay, which will be operating the supportive temporary housing, is happy about Tuesday's announcement.

"I'm excited. I have to admit, there is definitely a challenge ahead of us. We're hiring and we're looking forward to it," she said.

Open mid-December

The bridge housing is expected to open by mid-December, with the John Howard Society providing supports around the clock, as well as meals, washrooms and an amenity space.

It will close on March 31, 2020, around the same time more supportive housing units that are under construction are expected to open. 

Residents with substance use issues will be allowed to use drugs on site in a designated area that will be monitored by staff with safe needle disposal, according to a letter sent to neighbourhood residents from officials. 

"It's safer for them and the community if they use in a supervised area," said Himer. 

Jim White, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 26 in the building next door to the temporary supportive housing building, says from what he's heard, his members have no issue with the news. 

"I don't think we'll have a problem with that. We were thinking that there will be extra security around with them there and it might even be better for us in a sense," he said.

"I don't think it's gonna deter any of our members from coming down if they're next door."