Kathy Schuster, 45, sorts some of her belongings in the South Okanagan Women In Need Society’s SAFExst space, where she gets a bit of warmth and can stock up on some basic supplies. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

High hopes for modular units after tough year in housing

With numerous social housing projects in the works, none has come online since Fairhaven in 2016

After a challenging year in Penticton, B.C. Housing’s CEO hopes the addition of 56 modular social housing units will help the province catch up with demand for low-income residences.

Though numerous projects totalling dozens of social housing units have been in the works — Compass Court at the old Super 8 motel and projects on Brunswick Avenue and Backstreet Boulevard — none has come online since the opening of Fairhaven at the old Bel Air Motel in late 2016.

Meanwhile, the housing crisis continued, with just under half of Penticton renters paying 30 per cent of household income or more on shelter, and the situation on the streets is often worse. Two current or former street-entrenched homeless individuals spoke to the Western News last month on violence they face on the streets — an issue one non-profit service provider said was far from uncommon.

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Asked whether people facing violence on the streets gain priority into social housing B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay only said the connections with people in need of housing are made through outreach teams, which are often run through third-party groups.

“They would be one of the first connections to services, whether it be a shelter bed during an emergency weather response, some additional beds that we may have opened up, and then looking at the range of housing options that might be available to folks,” Ramsay said.

“Could be places like Fairhaven or the new modular housing development when it will be up and running.”

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Bryan, 64, who told the Western News about an assault with a golf club after he landed on the streets, said he had applied for a spot with B.C. Housing twice a year for several years while he lived in the Highland Motel, a spot notorious for health and crime hazards, but was unable to make it into social housing until he was on the streets.

“Access to housing is based on a priority system, and it looks at a number of factors. One of those that becomes the most urgent is when folks are homeless. Their current living conditions is also taken into account,” Ramsay said.

“So they would look at a variety of factors. Income, where the person is living, are they living in a shelter, in appropriate housing? Folks are given priority based on that, and then offered available units as they come on stream. The fact is we’re always working to provide more units to hopefully continue to address those needs.”

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But though it can be difficult to keep up with demand, particularly as housing crises strike communities across B.C., Ramsay said the Crown corporation is always trying to get ahead of the game.

“Homelessness is a very complex issue,” he said. “Homelessness or inappropriate living conditions are likely just one of the issues that they’re facing, and many folks face a whole range of health issues as well, from mental health, from physical health issues and from substance issues, as well, so it really is about putting the right housing with the right supports.”

One thing Ramsay said he hoped would help with providing a more expedient response to homelessness and inappropriate living conditions is recently announced modular housing units, 56 of which should be heading to Penticton.

Related: Moving forward from Highland Motel fire

“The shortage of that supported housing is one that we face in many communities across the province, and one of the reasons behind the modular housing initiative, because our hope behind that is rather than three or four years to put something in place, the modulars will come off and in place within six to eight months,” he said. “That rapid response, we hope, will help to address some of the issues in the short term.”

But even when Bryan did land in social housing, he noted feeling unsafe at times, with some residents. And the Fairhaven project was the site of a shooting in November. Ramsay said B.C. Housing tries to maintain safety at its housing projects with things like 24-hour security.

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“Folks sign a crime-free addendum to their tenancy, and in fact a number of people were evicted after that incident at Fairhaven,” he said.

Ramsay said the province will be conducting its own homeless count across the province this year, and when pressed about the challenges of getting the full picture of homelessness, he said the count would at least provide consistent methodology across the province.

“Many communities do their own homeless count under varying methodologies, so wouldn’t it be great if we had a consistent methodology throughout the Okanagan, so that we can get a good snapshot of what is happening?” he said, adding that the study would help B.C. Housing provide the right type of housing for the right people.

“It helps to inform a more comprehensive approach to homelessness both with respect to what are the short-term initiatives … and then looking at more permanent forms of supported housing, which could be new builds or acquisition and rehab of facilities.”

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