Penny Gambell isn’t sure if Lake Country has a homeless problem, but she wants the district to find out and develop a proactive strategy to address the issue.
The Lake Country councillor has brought the issue up at two recent council meetings, which led to a request for district staff to provide council with more information about the extent of homelessness in the community.
While Coun. Bill Scarrow supported her initiative to staff, he asked the question that many might ask: “Is there a homeless problem in Lake Country?”
Gambell said while anecdotal concerns about this issue have been brought to her attention, she can’t give a definitive answer to that question.
“This is why I wanted staff to look into it. I want to be proactive on this issue as we are a young and growing community, and I don’t want to happen to us what happened to Kelowna,” Gambell said.
She was referring to the high profile sight of homeless people lining the sidewalks of Leon Avenue around the Gospel Mission in Kelowna, but also to what she feels was past inaction of Kelowna city councils to address the issue before it became too late.
“We live in a beautiful place with a decent climate but it’s not like these problems can’t occur here at some point,” Gambell said.
“We as a council have a responsibility to uphold the quality of life we enjoy in Lake Country. The situation that exists in Kelowna now didn’t happen overnight, but they never did anything about it until it got to be so bad.
“You don’t expect to see that happen in a community even the size of Kelowna. There is only 130,000 people in Kelowna. It’s not that big.
“We are developing a social plan for Lake Country and that should include dealing with homeless people, and people in general finding it more and more difficult to live because of the lack of available rentals and high housing prices.”
Gambell was hoping the source of information would be Lake Country RCMP and provincial social service agencies.
From the police perspective, Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey said RCMP “are not the lead on the issue of homelessness. Rather this is a broad issue which our society as a whole needs to address.”
The RCMP’s main priority, he said, is to uphold the public peace and safety of Lake Country residents.
“The RCMP, where appropriate, will continue to engage in discussions with community leaders, government officials, as well as other policing partners, as potential initiatives are brought forward,” O’Donaghey said.
Joy Haxton, with the Lake Country Food Bank, said homeless people in the community may not be very visible, but they are out there.
“We know of people who come to us who are sleeping in their vehicle or couch-surfing,” Haxton said. “Rent is very high and it is hard to find some place affordable to live. If people are living in their van or some kind of makeshift shed, I would call that homeless. That’s not a home.”
Haxton says the number one concern from the perspective of all food banks across Canada is the lack of affordable housing.
“When housing is directly tied to income, then it helps,” she said.
Haxton also noted that the homeless problem may seem more readily apparent in Kelowna or Vernon compared to Lake Country because those communities offer more services for the homeless.
“Lake Country doesn’t have the population of those communities and we don’t have the volume of homeless others might because of that,” she said.
“As a food bank, we do what we can but in Lake Country there is no place for homeless people to sleep, to get a hot meal, to take a shower. There are no homeless hostels. Nothing,” she said.
Brenda Kalinovich, executive director of Lake Country Health Planning Society, is leading a new initiative to create a health and social services hub that would support a person at risk of homelessness or someone who is homeless.
She explained that proactive, patient-centred health and wellness services by teams of multi-disciplinary professionals and resources could assist persons at risk.
“Definitely resources in Lake Country on this issue is one of the key things we want to look at by creating this hub service. Bringing together health and social services, we would be better equipped to co-ordinate with other non-profit agencies to identify the problem and address some solutions.”
Currently, the society supported services include providing health and wellness information, support , advocacy and resource referrals to Lake Country residents.
Kalinovich said in a community of 13,000 people, Lake Country does not see the face of homelessness compared to Kelowna.
“It’s a tough question to answer, how bad the homeless problem is in Lake Country, because of the wider geographical spread of the community. It tends to revolve around access to community kitchen availability, access to places to sleep and availability of drugs, places where people can congregate,” Kalinovich said.
She said Gambell’s proactive approach should be endorsed rather than turning a blind eye to a homelessness problem until it’s more clearly visible.
“People are already falling through the gaps.They are all someone’s children, someone’s friend, dealing with something that happened in their lives to lead them to be homeless,” she said.
Gambell said council is in the midst of developing a social plan for the community this fall, and she wants the homeless issue to be part of that civic strategy.
“It really goes beyond the homeless to also include the working poor. We need to address that in our community, people need affordable housing,” she said.
Gambell noted the Federation of Canadian Municipalities developed a dozen recommendations for how communities can address poverty reduction.
Those ideas include to recognize gender inequality for those living in poverty, prioritize social and affordable housing construction, ensure low-income households can access quality child care and boost access to public transit.