The Differences between Emergency Shelters and Supportive Housing

There are many complex social issues around housing and homelessness, but community partners in Kelowna, including the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society, the John Howard Society of the Okanagan & Kootenays, Interior Health, CMHA Kelowna, NOW Canada, Kelowna’s Gospel Mission and Kelowna Women’s Shelter, BC Housing, and the City of Kelowna are working to address these issues through the implementation of the Journey Home Strategy.

The Journey Home Strategy calls for additional units of Housing with Supports while recognizing that the community will also still need emergency shelters.

But what is the difference and why does a community need both?

Emergency shelters and Housing with Supports (aka Supportive Housing) are two types of housing within a broad spectrum that are part of a much-needed solution to this problem. However, sometimes a lack of understanding about housing programs can inhibit public support for the progressive solutions that can lead Kelowna towards a healthy, inclusive community where all residents feel safe.

As Laura Mathews of BC Housing states, “even though these two programs are vastly different, they both provide an essential service. When you are experiencing homelessness, your sole focus is on where you are going to stay safe, sleep, and where you’ll get your next meal. Only when those basic needs are covered can people begin to think about their health or focus on goals that can help them move forward.”

Access to a safe and secure place to live is crucial for everyone’s physical and mental well-being. Housing is a precondition to recovery and the foundation we need to become healthy and happy members of any community.

Emergency shelters provide immediate relief and offer a bed, meals, washing facilities, access to support staff and personalized help from a caseworker. It’s a transitory service that offers temporary relief, but as Dawn Himer, the Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Okanagan and Kootenay, explains, “one of the major goals of people in a shelter is to actually obtain secure and stable housing. The shelter supports individuals to engage positively with the community. This is often the first step towards gaining stability and more permanent housing.”

Moreover, the shelter and caseworkers can identify and refer the people who want to stay in supportive housing programs. Shelters are never supposed to be permanent places to live – they are meant to be for short periods of time until more permanent solutions are provided. When there is a lack of longer-term housing, people get stuck in the system and end up living in a place that was never meant to be for an extended period of time. If we can free up space in these other alternatives, we can move people along the housing continuum.

Housing with Supports provides permanent housing with more dedicated services. The properties are well-maintained, self-contained units where residents take responsibility for their own home. The admission process carefully completes individual assessments of the residents to ensure a healthy tenant mix within the building and the neighbourhood. Residents have access to health care, and caseworkers are on hand to help them stay on track and achieve their goals.

Housing with Supports has the processes and people in place to maintain a positive relationship with the community. Neighbours are given a direct contact for the building, and each site has a Community Advisory Committee to mitigate and address concerns, with representation from BC Housing, the City, Health Authority, RCMP, the housing operator, local businesses, community organizations, and community members.

 There are good neighbour agreements and tenancy agreements in place to ensure the residents maintain the property and follow the rules. Wellness plans are in place. Upon intake to supportive housing, the residents’ care needs are assessed by the onsite support staff to ensure they have access to the services appropriate to their needs. Many of the selected residents will already have a wellness plan in place, and in this case the 24/7 support staff help them access the health and community supports outlined in the plan.  In the case where a resident does not have a wellness plan in place, the support staff will support them in the development of a plan.  After being placed in stable housing, the resident’s support needs change: onsite support staff continue to work with each person, monitor their progress and support adjustments in their wellness plans.

It’s a system that provides safety, shelter, and results.

Housing with Supports gives residents the chance to meet their neighbours and enable their participation in the community in a meaningful way, both socially and economically.

BC Housing provides funding for operational shelters in Kelowna, which provide a combined 160 of the total 216 shelter spaces to local people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to shelters, since 2018, close to 90 people have been housed and are being supported in scattered sites throughout the community through the CMHA Housing First program in Kelowna. There are three provincially funded supportive housing projects currently in development in the Kelowna area that will provide more than 150 units. Two of the projects are expected to open in the spring and summer of 2020, while the third will be ready in 2021.

The Transition Out of Homelessness

Image courtesy of BC Housing

Our community shelters and Housing with Supports are at capacity, and there is great need to find an appropriate location for more. Shelters and Housing with Supports are a part of a system where people can move through based on their needs. Those experiencing homelessness are not a finite group, it is a dynamic situation that changes as people’s circumstances and needs change.

Shelters and Housing with Supports provide a crucial solution and offer opportunities for people experiencing homelessness, bringing them in from the cold and into a situation where they can find stability, security, and the services they need to heal and grow. With these programs in place, they can find the support they need to change their circumstances and become happier and healthier members of the community.

By working together with a focus on proactive solutions, we can build a community where all members are safe and secure, and that’s a community we can all be proud of.