Annette Sharkey looked into the eyes of Vernon council Monday, June 27, and spoke frankly.
The executive director of the Social Planning Council of the North Okanagan said that two of her organization’s main strategies are “experiencing overwhelming need,” referring to the council’s homelessness strategy – designed to bring people inside and keep individuals and families housed – and its harm reduction and opioid overdose response strategy, aimed at preventing death and connecting people to treatment and support.
“It’s incredibly difficult for the non-profit sector to keep up with the demand,” said Sharkey in her quarterly report to council. “We are seeing unbelievable stresses with the housing stock and continued deaths from a toxic drug supply.
“Stress levels for service providers, for clients and for peers is extreme, and it’s difficult to witness this level of grief and suffering.”
Sharkey said there is an increase in people sleeping outside, that 100 different individuals were counted sleeping under the stars in the last month. A lack of available motel rooms in tourist season is definitely a factor, said Sharkey.
The Polson Park Motel was recently purchased by the province and will be turned into supported housing units, something Sharkey said Vernon needs more of.
“Each unit is gold, we know that, we can’t have enough units,” she said. “There’s also a need for complex care beds in Vernon, and we thank the city for advocating to the province for funding to help fill these gaps.
The face of homelessness is also changing, said Sharkey.
When she started doing reports to council in 2008, it was people with mental health issues mostly sleeping outside with no homes. Now, she says, it’s families, seniors and those with average income levels experiencing homelessness.
The Social Planning Council and the Harm Reduction Team oversee the opioid overdose response strategy. Despite their best efforts, the number of overdose deaths in Vernon since the pandemic has risen significantly.
In 2020, Sharkey said there were 26 OD deaths. That number rose to 43 in 2021. There were 15 in 2019.
“These are devastating statistics for the families, friends and coworkers who are impacted by the loss of loved ones,” said Sharkey.
On the flip side of things, Sharkey said her group and partners persevere, reviewing its strategies, understanding the needs and moving ahead to help fill gaps.
For example, the idea of a sobering centre in Vernon is being bandied about.
“A backgrounder is being developed to review how sobering centres are working in four other communities in B.C. to inform the direction of the Vernon action team,” said Sharkey in her report. “Vernon RCMP are members of the action team and assisting with research and feedback. Funding would need to be secured for this project to move forward.”