True face of homelessness isn’t what’s seen on the streets.

A mayoral candidate in the upcoming October municipal election wants BC Housing to conduct an independent review of shelters and facilities in Kamloops.

BC Housing apartment operated by CSI Kamloops for low to moderate income tenants

The candidate, Reid Hamer-Jackson, said in a press release: “Due to the lack of action, with respect to these facilities, problems have grown throughout our community.” While he is focusing on two projects, Canadian Mental Health Association and ASK Wellness Society, he lumps these with others funded by BC Housing.

That’s a mistake. Many of the shelters funded by BC Housing operate without any problems whatsoever.

I sympathize with businesses who are victims of senseless crime. Windows of local businesses are shattered and goods stolen. But I object to the majority of Kamloops’ homeless being blamed by the actions of a few.

I don’t think Hamer-Jackson understands the scope of projects funded by BC Housing.

Does he mean the 31 low-to-moderate income units operated by the Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family & Community Services Society 975 Singh Street?

Or the 58 units operated by Tk’emlups te Secwepemc (TteS)/YneT Society on Kamloopa Way & Chilcotin Rd?

I mention those two because the face of Kamloops’ homeless is not what you see on West Victoria Street. In a homeless count done in Kamloops by the Homelessness Services Association of B.C. last year, almost one-half of the homeless surveyed self-identified as Indigenous.

Does he mean the 112 low-to-moderate income rental units on 6th and Victoria operated by Centre for Seniors Information BC Interior Society, of which I’m president? I can assure Mr. Hamer-Jackson that every one of our tenants has been thoroughly vetted. Many of them were previously homeless.

Again, the true face of Kamloops homeless is not what you see on the streets. Of the 206 surveyed by the Homelessness Services Association of B.C., two-thirds of them were not on the street but sheltered. They were staying in shelters, couch-surfing, and depending on the kindness of friends. True, you might see them in the day but they are indistinguishable from regular Kamloopsians.

The same survey of Kamloops’ homeless also reveals troubling fact: one-third indicated that as a child or youth, they were in foster care, in a youth group home or on an Independent Living Agreement. Many have “aged out” of care facilities and with few resources, are now on the street.

Ten percent of Kamloops’ homeless are under the age of 25, some of them vulnerable women open to sexual assault.

One of those youths was Katherine McParland, former Executive Director for A Way Home, who tragically died last year.

Katherine spent much of her teenage years in foster homes and, once she aged out of the system at 19, was homeless in Kamloops for a period of time.

As an influential member of our community, she told of how she would sleep outdoors and couch surf at the homes of friends. McParland would describe foster care as the “superhighway to homelessness.”

The face of Kamloops homeless is as varied as the citizens who live here. A few of the homeless cause a lot of damage.

The solution to homelessness is homes, not stalling by unnecessary studies.

Attitude adjustment would solve our homeless problem

Our attitude towards the homeless is a barrier to solving the problem. The old notion is that the poor deserve to be so:  if people would just apply themselves, they wouldn’t be homeless.

image: KamloopsThis Week

Finland’s experience shows how a shift in attitude makes a difference.

In 1987, Finland had a homeless population of about 20,000 out of a population of five million –a rate of four homeless per thousand.

To address the problem, Finland adopted a “Housing First” philosophy, said Juha Kaakinen (Globe and Mail, August 13, 2021).

 Kaakinen, chief executive officer of Finland’s non-profit Y-Foundation, was addressing a panel convened by The Canadian Urban Institute.

Another panelist, Leilani Farha, said that part of Finland’s success is the result of shift in mindset. For Finns, homelessness is not an option.

“People have a right to housing as part of their constitution.” said Farha,

Finland’s solved the problem with a partnership between federal and state governments, lottery corporations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Y-Foundation, a non-profit organization, started buying private apartments in 1985 with grants obtained from the government run Finland Slot Machine Association.

In turn, the Y-Foundation subleased the apartments out to municipalities and NGOs. The rent plus the grants paid for the apartments.

Finland’s homeless rate is now one-fifth of what it was.

It’s tempting to think of housing the homeless as an expense when, in fact, it’s savings. Housing for all everyone has proven to be the most effective remedy for improving lives and saving money.

A study published by Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 found that costs to Seattle’s public health system dropped by 60 per cent in the first six months after chronically homeless people with severe alcoholism were found homes.

Canada is not beyond hope. Our homeless rate is just above what Finland’s was in 1987 –about six homeless per thousand.

All levels of government are working on the problem.

The City of Kamloops’ Affordable Housing Reserve Fund allows for up to $150,000 per project for low income earners.

The B.C. government built 3,200 new affordable housing units last year and more are being built this year. (Full disclosure: I am the president of a non-profit organization that will take possession of the largest project in the interior built by BC Housing, opening in downtown Kamloops this fall.)

The federal government is working with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to build affordable housing. This year’s federal budget provides an additional $2.5 billion over seven years to CMHC.

Dignity and financial security are restored when the homeless are given homes.

Tina Dawson, 52, from Victoria, told the Institute’s panel about being homeless for first-time in the past year:

“Being newly homeless, I am gob-smacked at the way things are out of sight, out-of-mind, and the machine that is in place to keep people homeless. How on earth am I going to get out of this position? I’ve managed my entire life. I’ve raised three children. And I have no address. The problem is [putting together] the damage deposit. I’m on permanent disability. That’s hand to mouth.”

Those who work full-time at minimum wage jobs should be able to afford a place to live.

Surely that’s not too much of an adjustment in attitude to make.

BC Housing should value their friends in Kamloops City Council

City councillors support public housing but the recent announcement by the B.C. government took them by surprise. In a press release, BC Housing said that they had purchased the Fortune Motel on Kamloops North Shore.

Fortune Motel, image: Agoda

BC Housing is a crown corporation that finances subsidized housing for low income families.

“What the hell is this?” was a common reaction at City Hall, Councillor Dale Bass told me. The lack of communication represented a “disconnect of our relationship” with the provincial government.

While staff at City hall were apparently aware of the purchase, councillors were not Bass said.

Consultation is needed because Council has plans for the North Shore and BC Housing’s purchases may not fit. Of course, consultation would have to be done in confidentiality since real estate purchases are sensitive.

In a press release, Attorney General and Housing Minister David Eby said that BC Housing and the City of Kamloops will work together to determine a permanent plan for the property. That’s a fine thing to say but just when did BC Housing plan to start working together?

It’s Councillors who take the flak from the public over public housing. Some citizens are “genuinely afraid” of homeless people, Bass said.

Kamloops homeless are often characterized by the actions of “street people” who sometimes appear menacing.

Encounters with mentally ill people can be frightening. A friend of mine was approached by a stranger, apparently in a psychotic state, as she shopped in a thrift store on Tranquille. “You’re going to fucking die, bitch,” he shouted angrily. The verbal assault left her shaken.   

Mental health of homeless people is a problem and it’s exacerbated by their lack of secure shelter. While mentally ill people are more likely to injure themselves than others, that’s little comfort to those are accosted by the unstable mentally ill.

Street people are also blamed for an increase in crime. Yet the perception doesn’t always match reality.

Kamloops RCMP Supt. Syd Lecky told City Council on June 11, 2021, that crime was actually down in some parts of the city compared to last year. Property crime was down in North Kamloops by eight per cent, the same in Valleyview, and up 11 per cent in Westsyde.

But last year was unusual because of the pandemic, Lecky added, and that property crime was up everywhere from 1019.

Homeless people represent a fragile sector of our population.

In a survey done by BC Housing of Merritt’s homeless in 2020, one-quarter reported a brain injury and 70 per cent had two or more health concerns. Seventy-eight per cent suffered from addiction.

In a survey done in Kamloops in June, 2018, one-half of respondents first experienced homelessness as youths. Probably, as in Merritt’s case, many were formerly in foster care.

The profile of homeless people is one of addiction compounded by desperation, mental and physical health. They are often youths thrown out on the streets with few life-skills.

Kamloops doesn’t need a big-stick approach by BC Housing to get affordable housing in Kamloops. Not like that other Interior city, Penticton, where City Council is taking the province to court over a dispute involving BC Housing’s locations.

Kamloopsians sensibly realize that you can’t complain about homeless people on the street while also complaining that they are being housed.