Survival of the Richest, Chapter Three

Homeless-Sign

Just after COVID started appearing in Canada, Central Okanagan Foundation took a snapshot of the homeless situation. Nearly 300 people were experiencing homelessness in Kelowna on March 10, 2020, with more hidden in tents and tarps around the city. 

Mike Gawliuk with Canadian Mental Health Association Kelowna says the cost of living is on the rise, and it's hard for people to get their feet under them. "Kelowna is a growing community and certainly we're a very popular community. People want to live here, and as a result the cost of housing increases, it puts pressure on folks who may not be able to afford that housing and puts them one step closer to the experience of homelessness."

Despite the number of people living without a roof over their head, City of Kelowna statistics released in March show more than two percent of all available residential rentals are empty. 

Fewer units mean higher costs. In order to afford a bachelor suite in Kelowna, the city says your annual income needs to be above $41,000. 

Cost of living website Area Score lists the average personal income in Kelowna around $35,000 before taxes. That's a long way from the $41,000 needed to live on one's own. 

Anastasia French with Living Wages for Families says the COVID pandemic has tightened finances even more, "Many of the people who have caught COVID, who have spread it, it's because they're working multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. When they work multiple jobs, that's multiple potential touch points for contracting COVID. These are the people who are hurting the most to keep us safe, keep us cared for, keep us fed, and ultimately these are also the ones unfortunately most at risk of getting COVID."

It's something the city is aware of. Kelowna's annual housing report finds higher paid individuals are more likely to have a job where they can work from home, own a home, and live in a two person household. 

Looking at the opposite end, the city reports nearly half of all renters put more than 30 percent of their income toward rent - more than what's considered affordable. 

Why such a high number? It can't be blamed on laziness or lack of job availability. Area Score shows Kelowna's unemployment rate at 5.1 percent - one of the lowest in the country. 

But as Gawliuk explains, having a job doesn't make things secure. "What the pandemic has done is really shone a light on the fact that...people can be one cheque away from homelessness. It's probably never more true than it has been now, and if we don't make efforts to prevent people from falling into homelessness we're just going to find ourselves with an issue that continues to perpetuate itself."