While many city officials are figuring out how to deal with a growing number of people living on the streets, the Vernon Native Housing Society is focused on a different kind of homeless problem. It’s what Valerie Chiba, President of VNHS, calls “hidden homelessness.”
On Feb. 14, the 38-family VNHS housing initiative broke ground. This $10 million project, dubbed Thunderbird Manor, focuses on providing Indigenous Vernonites with housing but also aims help solve some of the local housing issues for low-income families.
VNHS executive director Karen Gerein explained the “hidden homeless” are individuals within the community who are living with family, friends or couch surfing because they can’t afford rent.
“They don’t have their own place because of financial strain, which causes mental strain. The purpose of this project is to take some of those people who are unseen homeless and give them a home they can actually afford,” said Gerein.
She said that when the project was planned, they were hoping to focus on youth aging out of care. While she acknowledged that Turning Points has done a “wonderful job” providing services to individuals living on Vernon’s streets, she said VNHS isn’t structured to provide those services.
“BC Housing is also doing a good job and their main goal right now is getting people off the street but they have also always had a goal of helping people move out of affordable housing and into home ownership,” she said. “How [our organization] addresses homelessness is with affordable housing.”
Established in 1989, VNHS is a not-for-profit organization that provides low-cost rental housing to low-income families and individuals, including First Nations people residing in Vernon.
“Because of the nature of our work, we do have a focus on supplying resources to the Aboriginal community,” said Chiba.
She said that while the society understands the housing crisis affects all British Columbians, because project is “aboriginal funding”, they are aiming for at least 60 per cent of the residents to be of Indigenous decent or have Indigenous ties.
In 2018, the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association estimated that one-third of B.C. residents are renters, with almost half spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Almost one in five are spending more than 50 per cent of their income on rent. The government has recently responded to what many are calling a “housing crisis” by launching a new housing strategy with a 10-year, $40 billion plan.
With a $2.27 million federal government commitment to help build Thunderbird Manor, Chiba said it’s expected to open in spring 2020. It will provide homes to at least 38 families and individuals, Indigenous elders, people with accessibility challenges and families living off-reserve. The provincial government also provided $7.9 million and the City of Vernon which waived development fees.
“The new national housing strategy is fantastic and they’re pumping all of this money into housing. It’s just too bad that they didn’t do it sooner because not renewing agreements with aging housing, not releasing any funds for new builds or working with the provinces, has resulted in the situation we’re in today,” said Gerein. “So even though we continue to get more housing, we still see these homeless numbers climb and that’s because of CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) pulling out funding in the 1990s, but they are here now and are scrambling to make up for the last 25 years.”
She said she believes it’s becoming harder to attract people to Vernon because housing costs are high and the vacancy levels are low. She hopes this project will give people a chance to succeed, and also noted a local collaboration between B.C. Housing, Turning Points, the Vernon Native Housing Society and Social Planning wherein they are working together to “look at each individual person and trying to house them appropriately.”
“B.C. is one of the few provinces that stepped up to the plate and actually continued to provide affordable housing,” she said. “So with our complex and with the Turning Points Complexes, we’re hoping to see, over the next few years, a dramatic drop of people in the streets.”
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