While many of us will return to a warm, safe home each night, Steve McVarnock, board chair for the John Howard Society of the North Okanagan, says a significant segment of the local population doesn’t have that option.
But the former RCMP officer says that’s about to change, at least for some, thanks to a recent announcement from the provincial government.
During a press conference held in Vernon Wednesday, Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, announced the creation of a partnership between the Province and the City of Vernon to develop two new modular-housing projects in the community.
“It’s deeply concerning when anyone, anywhere is living on the streets or in a ravine or in a park,” Robinson told the audience of more than 50 officials, members of the media and supporters gathered at the People Place Wednesday afternoon. “We know there’s an urgent need to address homelessness in Vernon and communities throughout British Columbia.”
The B.C. government is investing $291 million to build 2,000 modular-housing units for people who are homeless and more than $170 million over three years to provide 24/7 staffing and support services, as part of an action plan to reduce homelessness through permanent housing and services.
The Minister said the $11 million dollar investment will fund a 53-unit supportive housing complex and a 45-bed expansion of a shelter operated by the John Howard Society at 2300 43rd Street.
The supportive housing units, which will be self-contained and include personal kitchens and washrooms, will be constructed on land owned by BC housing at the intersection of 27th Avenue and 35th Street.
These units, according to Robinson, are intended for people transitioning out of homelessness and will be able to accommodate nearly 100 people. The shelter is expected to open in early 2018, to “bring people off the street as soon as possible.”
City councillor and advocate, Juliette Cunningham, said the “monumental” announcement has been a long time coming.
“It’s not been easy. But, you know, we don’t give up,” an emotional Cunningham told the crowd. “This is what happens when you don’t give up.”
Mayor Akbal Mund echoed his colleague, before breaking into song.
“Here’s to you, Minister Robinson,” Mund smiled as he sang to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 hit. “Vernon loves you more than you will know.”
“This is what we’ve been talking about for ten years, in our community,” he said following the conference.
“We hear about homelessness in Vernon all the time, but the way to tackle this issue is housing first, and it’s coming in the spring and fall of 2018. So we be able to move forward.”
The inclusion of the element of 24-hour care within the supportive housing complex, he added, is another “huge step forward” for the city.
Jacob Philp, a residential worker with the John Howard Society in Vernon, will make a “huge difference” for his clients.
As a former addict who spent a year living on the streets in Kelowna, Philp, who was asked to share his story during Wednesday’s conference, said he knows first-hand, how big a difference the additional access to care can make.
“When I was living on the street, all I did was use drugs, and I would acquire my drugs by any means necessary, really. Everything came second to my addiction. I got into some legal issues, my family stopped talking to me, I watched several friends die. I was truly alone. I burned all my bridges.”
The 29-year-old Kelowna man, who previously studied music production and engineering, said the turning point came when he heard about Bill’s Place in Vernon.
“I was done. It came to a point where I realized I was going to die if I didn’t do something.I had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he said of his decision to enter into treatment.
Though he credits his parents for helping him get into Bill’s Place, which is operated by the John Howard Society, Philp noted the addition of more facilities also underscores the need to get the word out that they exist.
“If people, like the people I knew on the streets of Kelowna, knew you could get help and it doesn’t cost you anything….that you can get social assistance and it pays for treatment and you can live there (at the facility) and get three meals a day and get healthy… when I found that out it was a no brainer, and I know there are people out there, that if they had access to that information it would be no brainer for them too,” he said.
“It’s unimaginable, the change we can make when we do the right things.”