With homeless populations rising locally, and provincewide, some big dollars are being spent to support those living rough.
A $1.2-million Strengthening Communities Program grant will be used in Vernon for several initiatives, including bringing more people inside for the winter.
The motel program currently has between 70 and 75 beds in Vernon, but the grant will open up an additional 42.
“We’re going to be able to bring more people inside over the winter,” Social Planning Council of the North Okanagan executive director Annette Sharkey said.
Currently, the shelters are full every night and the motel program is maxed out, Sharkey said.
“We regularly see between 300-400 people a year accessing homeless shelters in Vernon.”
A homeless count conducted in May 2021 showed a significant increase in numbers from the last count in October 2019. This year’s count found 224 individuals are experiencing homelessness, a 33 per cent increase since 2019’s 151.
“Overall we are seeing an increase in homelessness right across the province,” said Sharkey, as 11 of the 13 counts saw a rise.
But those numbers are likely even higher, as this is the first year the count has been provincially funded and only included those who agreed to take the survey. In past years, the local count was done by volunteers who would visually count those on the streets.
Although the provincial count did provide funding which allowed for the hiring of peers to work at the street clinic and encourage people to take part.
“They noticed a huge difference in the number of people willing to take part.”
One key finding from the count was that 40 per cent of the individuals experiencing homelessness identified as Indigenous, whereas only four per cent of Vernon’s population identifies as such.
Therefore an Indigenous cultural safety consultant has been hired to work with agencies in decision-making policies. The Splatsin woman is currently working with Turning Points Collaborative.
The position is funded from the grant, which will also be used to bring in drinking fountains for future events and general Okanagan heat, public washroom security, an extension of the seasonal bylaw program, a peer program for the public washrooms, expanded shower and laundry access and a Wellbriety Program.
But more supportive and affordable housing is what will make a long-term difference, Sharkey said.
Since 2008, there have been 332 non-profit beds or units added to the housing stock. There are another 297 units of affordable housing in various stages of construction and 100 supportive housing units.
But the demand has hit record levels, from what Sharkey has seen, just in the past year or two.
“I’ve been doing this work for a really long time and I have never seen a housing market this tight in Vernon,” she said. “It’s wild.”
“Right now we know of at least 30 families that are leasing rooms in hotels because they can’t find a rental.
“There are so few rentals available, and what is available is completely unaffordable.”
While BC Housing has worked with Vernon on a number of projects, including the 52-unit duplication of My Place currently under construction, the Canadian government hasn’t helped much.
“I haven’t seen rental programs on the federal level make a big difference in Vernon,” Sharkey said. “In the ’70s and ’80s, feds were building a lot and then it just stopped.”