British Columbia

Province, city at odds over finding emergency shelter site in Kelowna

As dozens of homeless people in Kelowna sleep outside in frigid temperatures, both the provincial and municipal governments have deflected responsibility for finding a location for an emergency cold weather shelter in the city. 

With 40-50 people sleeping in parks as temperatures plummet, each government says the other is responsible

City of Kelowna bylaw officers oversee a homeless man packing up his things at a designated overnight camping site in Kelowna on Wednesday. (Chris Walker/CBC)

As dozens of homeless people in Kelowna sleep outside in frigid temperatures, both the provincial and municipal governments have deflected responsibility for finding a location for an emergency cold weather shelter in the city. 

Existing shelters in the city are full and a site for an emergency shelter has yet to be secured, despite provincial funding being available for at least three weeks.

The B.C. government and City of Kelowna have said the other is responsible for finding a space.

The confusion has come to light two days after the city removed a burgeoning tent city in the downtown core and opened two city-owned parks for overnight camping in the city's north end. 

The city says it decided to remove the crowded Leon Avenue site due to fire concerns. City officials also pointed to their legal obligations to provide public space for camping when there is no available indoor shelter.  

'The city doesn't provide shelter, period'

On Wednesday, Mayor Colin Basran said the city has reviewed all city-owned properties for suitability for an emergency shelter, but is not responsible for finding other options.

Securing a location, he said, is ultimately the responsibility of the provincial government, through B.C. Housing. 

"This is not something that the City of Kelowna is responsible for … The city doesn't provide shelter, period," he said.

City manager Doug Gilchrist also pointed to the Journey Home Society, a non-profit organization created by the city to co-ordinate a five-year homelessness strategy.

Asked for clarification about who is ultimately responsible, Gilchrist said "all three parties [province, city and society] have worked and will continue to work on various aspects of housing solutions in our community, including shelters."

But both the province and the Journey Home Society denied they were directly responsible for finding a suitable location for an emergency winter shelter.

"The City of Kelowna and B.C. Housing are taking the lead on that ... We are a convening organization," society board member Debbie Hubbard said.

When asked how many potential locations have been scouted, board chair Kyleen Myrah said: "You'd have to ask the city about that."

Ministry response

In an emailed response, the Ministry of Housing and Social Development said that "local governments identify the sites for planned shelters — sites that work best for their communities ... The City of Kelowna has not yet decided on a site for a new temporary shelter."

In a tweet meant to clarify the situation, the city said "the City, Journey Home and BC Housing are all working together to find a solution regardless of our responsibilities."

With daytime highs below freezing, and biting wind blowing off Okanagan Lake, homeless campers in the city-sanctioned areas must now wait until after dark to set up their tents, and must then dismantle them every morning.

In recent nights, 40-50 people have been sleeping outside.

With files from Christine Coulter

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