Recently, I was invited for a tour of Cornerstone, the Leon Avenue emergency shelter that BC Housing first opened in November 2017 and is operated by The John Howard Society. The shelter has received a significant amount of media attention since opening as well as feedback from the business community nearby – I wasn’t sure what to expect during the tour or how I would process it. I must admit that I was nervous. I’ve been so fortunate in my life to not experience the hardships of brain injury, mental illness, poverty or addiction that some of the community of Cornerstone face. But, learning and understanding the challenges and successes both Cornerstone and local businesses are facing as we work towards solutions to support them, is of great importance.
With all sorts of illusions running through my head I arrived at Cornerstone’s front door and was greeted by Gaelene and Andrea, from The John Howard Society, Martin and Kyleen Co-Chairs of Journey Home were also part of the tour.
75-83 folks call Cornerstone home on a nightly basis. The old warehouse space has been converted and now has sleeping cots, a food service area, a living room area with Netflix and couches, a laundry room and an overdose prevention table. With 5-support team members working every shift, the staff has managed to maintain a 0% fatality rate since opening. With limited current resources for help, the harm reduction philosophy of Cornerstone has kept 55 overdoes off the streets, 9 of these events (16%) were incurred by 1 person with extreme challenges.
But what struck me most during my tour was the sense of community that the residents built and their proclaimed values, like respect of quiet time and organization. Andrea likened their evolution at the shelter to very much like a strata – where the support team works alongside residents to develop a code of honour, together.
As we toured the back of the building where the restroom and shower facilities are housed in an Atco trailer (we were told it would be too costly to upgrade the warehouse’s building codes for a temporary shelter) a resident made a comment that hit me.
“It’s show and tell day! You’re all here to see where all the f**** ups are!”
That’s not why I was there nor is it why the others were either. We were there to understand. But this is how our most vulnerable population view themselves based on their past experiences. This is the level of shame and rejection that keep these community members at an all-time low.
The fact of the matter is I’ve yet to encounter someone who dreams of being homeless from a young age. I think that we would be hard pressed to find someone who would say from birth: ‘My goal in life is to live without a home and choose to survive in the elements’. Unfortunately, life’s events may have spiraled in an unfortunate direction.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the level of respect the residents of Cornerstone have for their community and home. A good portion of these folks don’t do drugs and don’t want to start; they simply do not have the resources to find housing. Some require additional support services to aid them in their journey of recovery.
If we look at the widely studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of human motivation it is abundantly clear that if someone’s basic needs of survival are not met (i.e. shelter, food, water and safety) it is near impossible to reach higher. You end just trying to get through each hour and each day in order to survive.
If we as a community want to alleviate our homelessness challenge there are multiple support projects required. This doesn’t just serve the humanitarian side of supporting our fellow Kelownians and Canadians. It also serves the community as a whole. By investing in a homelessness strategy with housing supports we begin to support businesses that have challenges with residents living on the streets. We maximize the time of first responders (Police & Fire) who attend emergency overdoses. We reduce the strain on our emergency department of KGH because our vulnerable populations would be using housing support services instead of emergency medical services.
Whether you agree with Cornerstone or not this is an example of relying on an emergency shelter as a permanent housing solution. It is not sustainable long term for business or residents. We need additional housing options with support services available to transition those currently ‘sleeping rough’ to a state where they can begin to recover.
I’m excited to hear the final recommendations of the Journey Home Task Force, which will be presented to Council on June 25. This will be the opportunity for the next sitting council to either implement the strategy or choose to use it as a $100,000 paperweight. I know our community can approach this issue with compassion and respect and aim to include all residents in a complete community.