Crews from Penticton Fire Rescue muster as smoke billows from the Highland Motel Friday afternoon. The cause of the fire is not determined.                                Mark Brett/Western News
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Crews from Penticton Fire Rescue muster as smoke billows from the Highland Motel Friday afternoon. The cause of the fire is not determined. Mark Brett/Western News

Motel fire highlights Penticton’s housing crisis

Emergency services and NGOs are desperately searching for shelter for the motel’s evacuees

A fire in a Penticton motel is a dramatic reminder of the precarious housing situation in the city, as evacuees and emergency service providers scramble to find housing.

Brian Wallace is one of those residents desperately searching for a place to live.

Through tears, Wallace explained that he is desperate for someone to give him and his dog a chance.

“I don’t know what else to do,” said Wallace. “I am sick, I am a cancer survivor, I have a therapy dog and I’ve lived there for 10 years. I need someone to give me a month trial with my dog, that’s it. If they don’t like me after a month I’ll move on, but right now I need a roof over my head. I am 63 years old, I can’t live on the streets, I need my dog, he is a best friend, he is the only family I got.”

The Highland Motel near the northern entrance to Penticton on Highway 97 caught fire Friday afternoon, causing the evacuation of all residents. Fire Chief Larry Watkinson said the fire in the motel, which was uninsured at the time, rendered the structure a write-off.

“These are definitely the have-not people of our community, and that’s hard on them. They’ve lost pretty well everything they’ve got,” said Watkinson.

The motel housed over about 20 low-income residents who, earlier in June, were served eviction notices for July 1 after the property was recently sold to an unknown developer.

But in a city with next to nothing vacant — doubly so for affordable units — that hasn’t been much time for evacuees to find new accommodations.

“Being Penticton, with the resort town, being the long weekend, being summer, there’s no availability anywhere,” said emergency support services director Alida Erickson. “Normally we would have put them up in a motel. Either way, even if there were motel rooms available, at this point they would still be out because emergency support services coverage is done.”

Normally, the evacuees would have been out on their own come Monday afternoon, but the B.C. government extended the emergency shelter by another 24 hours to 96.

“They gave us a little bit of breathing space, anyway,” said evacuee Terry Theroux. “I’m just hoping, crossing my fingers that, under the circumstances, they’ll be able to find me something.”

Theroux said the volunteers at the emergency shelter have been exceptionally supportive.

“They’ve really gone out of the way to make us feel as comfortable as possible,” he said. “Very supportive. Even the security guards, you can talk to them about anything. They’re happy to listen and happy to speak with you.”

Through those conversations, Erickson said she’s learned about the marginal situations that the Highland Motel’s former residents are in.

“Over these last four days, we’ve become friends with some of these people, and they are feeling secure enough with us, now, that they’re telling us how their lives are,” she said. “A lot of them are marginal and they have addiction or other mental health issues, and, for whatever reason, they’ve fallen through the cracks in some cases.

“Anybody with empathy is going to feel for them. It is taking a toll on us to a point. But I can go home to my own house, tonight.”

“We are trying to find ways that these people may be able to go stay with family members or a friend, that are a bus ride away, help them get to those locations so that they can stay with someone they know or feel secure with,” said Watkinson. “We don’t want them to end up on the streets.”

Watkinson is hoping they can allow them to stay at the community centre at least one more night, but said the community centre is also struggling with relocating planned summer programs for kids that were meant to happen there.

“We need to help them make the next step or this will become their permanent residence and that won’t work,” said Watkinson.

Efforts are focused on finding shelter for the motel’s evacuees, but Watkinson says the real struggle will be to find stable, sustainable housing.

“They don’t have a down payment, they don’t have first month’s rent, they don’t have a reference. It’s really hard to get them into a place that will allow them to rent,” Watkinson said. “A few of them have been able to find places. But we still have 14 that are homeless. We just don’t want them to end up on the streets and become another statistic, right?”

With up to 14 more potentially homeless individuals, there is more pressure on the city to help develop solutions to the city’s affordable housing situation.

“We recognize the need for more housing for those below the poverty line, as well as the working poor,” Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said in an email statement. “We’ve partnered with B.C. Housing to provide some relief, but the need outweighs the current supply, and process to add more units is slow.”

Jakubeit added that the city is working with local nonprofits and other agencies to “help fast-track some solutions,” adding that adding to the market-price stock could help alleviate the issue as well.

“Later this fall, several new apartments will come online, so that will create some more inventory and provide some market price adjustments for older units that currently charge a premium because of limited vacancies.”

The cause of the fire was deemed ‘suspicious,’ but Watkinson said the fire crews left it at that because the building was set for demolition and “it didn’t make good sense to put somebody’s life at risk” by sending a fire inspector in to investigate further.

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