A few of the people that are forced to live in Carmi hanging out in one of the tents they are forced to use for shelter. Mark Brett/Western News

It is time to just do better for Penticton homeless

For Western News reporter Dustin Godfrey, housing and homelessness was the story of 2017

In my relatively short time on Earth, I’ve already grown weary of the phrase “we need to do better.”

I’ve seen and heard it countless times from columnists, op-eds, editorials, talking heads, countless comments sections and quotes on TV, radio and print news reports. The thing is, it is obviously true every time the words come out of the speaker’s mouth/keyboard.

As someone who watches the news, you start to see the cycle. Bad thing happens, media reports on bad thing, politicians apologize and assure the public that “we need to do better.” Bad thing happens, media reports on bad thing, politicians apologize. “We need to do better.”

For the oddball out there that reads the bylines, you might have noticed I’ve taken a particular interest in housing and homelessness, and that, for me, was certainly the story of 2017.

When the Highland Motel caught fire, it might have been easy to turn away and ignore it — we all have housing issues in a real estate market trapped between a rock (mountains) and a hard place (lakes).

And that rock even became home to a couple dozen families pushed out of Penticton’s near-zero vacancy rental market, according to one family I interviewed that were living up Carmi hill, while another family living on middle-class wages camped out elsewhere while struggling to find housing they could afford.

“We need to do better.”

Though the place was awfully run down, the Highland was a shelter for several of Penticton’s most vulnerable, including a man who was, only days later, was attacked with a golf club.

“We need to do better.”

November’s homeless count found just under 80 homeless people on the streets, according to preliminary data, compared to 130 the year before, and at first that looks promising.

But I’ve spoken to a few people who have serious doubts that the homeless population has decreased.

Hostility in the community toward Penticton’s homeless population — itself an issue that needs addressing — driven by an increase in property crime in the city, could discourage some from emerging from the shadows to be counted. Homeless individuals may not have been in the right places when the homeless count was being conducted and the count only happens over the course of one week.

The city has certainly worked to bring forward some projects in the past year or so. Fairhaven opened just over a year ago at the old Bel-Air Motel; the Super 8 is being converted into Compass Court, set to open fully in the spring or summer; projects on Brunswick Avenue and Backstreet Boulevard and now some proposed modular housing.

For so long it has felt like too little, too late. The city tested the waters with Fairhaven when the housing crisis was already in full swing, and now there won’t be anymore social housing units until after the snow has melted.

And it is difficult to see how record-level developments will mitigate the issue, when new rental units are going for $1,300 for one bedroom, and the number of people paying too much for housing continues to climb.

We ran a headline in the final weeks of 2017 suggesting 2018 could be the year of affordable housing in Penticton. If so, last year was the year of housing crisis.

And, as we repeat that oft-spoken sentiment reassuring ourselves that “we need to do better,” it still feels like filler until the next news report or the next housing project comes online. Then comes the question: how many more do we need in 2019? In 2020?

For 2018, my hope is that municipal, provincial and federal governments, and the community as a whole, eliminate a certain four-letter word from that phrase and just do better.

Dustin Godfrey is a reporter for the Penticton Western News.

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