British Columbia

Kelowna encampment residents speak out after Poilievre compares designated sleeping area to 3rd world country

People living with homelessness and the City of Kelowna aren't happy with federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre's tweet Tuesday comparing conditions in Kelowna to those of a "third-world country."

'Why has he not even come down to speak to anyone here?': camper Debbie Houghtaling

Kelowna homeless encampment residents speak out

4 months ago
Duration 2:30
A homeless camp in Kelowna was thrown into the national spotlight this week after the leader of the federal opposition tweeted a video showing a row of dozens of tents at the city's designated homeless camping area. Some people living there say they are being used as political pawns.

Garth Gorrell and his wife, Debbie Houghtaling, have been camping along the Okanagan Rail Trail at the north end of downtown Kelowna, B.C., for two years.

Gorrell, a former steelworker in Kamloops, and Houghtaling, who used to do online clerical work for an Alberta-based janitorial service, both lost their jobs due to layoffs at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hoping to find employment, the couple relocated to Kelowna but had no luck. Unable to afford a rental apartment, they made the decision to shelter outdoors.

"We're staying right there — home sweet home," Gorrell said, standing near their makeshift residence consisting of two tents, a vegetable garden, and their dog Kismet.

"Don't get in people's way, and you will be fine."

A woman in a pink vest and a black short stands near vegetables on the ground, with fencing behind her.
Debbie Houghtaling looks at the vegetables she and her husband grow near their camp. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

In May 2021, the City of Kelowna set up what it calls an "outdoor sheltering site" on the Rail Trail where people could sleep in tents between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. every day. The main purpose of the designated camping site was to discourage people from camping in city parks and other public spaces. The city has since expanded the allowance and estimates about 100 people are camping there daily.

However, the couple didn't anticipate encountering strangers intruding on their lives, driving through the encampment area, filming, and hurling derogatory remarks at the campers.

"They drive by and say 'crackheads' or one guy went by with a megaphone [saying], 'Don't do drugs.' 

"We're not all drug addicts," Houghtaling said. "You feel like you're on display."

She believes that those filming are a paycheque away from experiencing homelessness themselves. To her surprise, one of the videos they captured was uploaded to TikTok over the weekend.

Two days later, federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre tweeted the TikTok video, gaining over 11,000 likes.

"These images are not from a faraway third-world country. This is Kelowna after eight years of Trudeau and the NDP," Poilievre wrote in the tweet.

Campers, city decry Poilievre's polarizing tweet

Houghtaling finds it absurd that a politician would choose to use a TikTok video that lacks any context about the Rail Trail campers. 

"Why has he not even come down and spoken to anyone here or driven by and filmed it himself?

"To use us on his platform to make him look like he's a better leader?" she said. "Anyone who says those are the people that are running our country is laughable."

The Central Okanagan, home to over 222,000 people, is Canada's fastest-growing metropolitan area, according to Statistics Canada. Like many other regions in British Columbia and Canada, it has been grappling with a rapidly increasing homeless population.

Darren Caul, Kelowna's community safety director, estimates that there are at least 200 people living outdoors throughout the city, a fourfold increase over the past two years.

As a public servant, Caul says he refrains from delving into politics but believes it is unfair to single out Kelowna on social media for its homeless population.

"Communities across the province — in fact, across the country — are having to address and deal with the unfortunate consequences of our economics and social conditions.

"It's disappointing because it shows just a sliver of our community," he said.

A man in a blue shirt stands in front of a building.
Darren Caul, Kelowna's community safety director, estimates there are at least 200 people throughout the city living outdoors, but he says it is unfair to use social media to single out Kelowna because it's not the only Canadian city with a homeless problem. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Kelowna's commitment to address homelessness

Caul says Poilievre's tweet fails to acknowledge Kelowna's world-class amenities, such as the beautiful Okanagan Lake, beaches and wineries. 

He says it also neglects to mention that the Central Okanagan municipality implemented a five-year Journey Home strategy in 2017, partnering with B.C. Housing and non-profit organizations to address homelessness and addiction issues.

"Housing as well as mental health and problematic substance use issues are mandates of the provincial government, but that doesn't stop the City of Kelowna from rolling up our sleeves and getting involved," Caul said.

The Journey Home strategy is currently undergoing a review, and Kelowna city council will decide whether to extend the program beyond 2023 based on its outcome.

Tents along a road.
Homeless camps along the Okanagan Rail Trail in the north end of downtown Kelowna. The city is reviewing its strategy around homelessness. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

In the meantime, Gorrell and Houghtaling rely on meals and subsidies from the city's Gospel Mission, a homeless support organization, while continuing to search for employment and affordable housing.

"Twelve hundred [dollars a month] is probably the best," Gorrell said.

"Or even 1,500 [dollars a month] with utilities included."

A woman in a pink vest and black shorts feeds a dog while a man looks on in front of tents.
Garth Gorrell and Debbie Houghtaling say they rely on meals and subsidies from the Gospel Mission while continuing to look for employment and affordable housing. (Brady Strachan/CBC)