Fact-checking claims about homelessness in Kamloops

Are people being bussed in to Kamloops? Do shelters have empty beds? The Wren contributor Sadie Hunter discerns fact from fiction.
Grey-clad building with red awnings and red signage that reads "Ask Wellness Society." Left side of building features a colourful mural of a woman who seems to be growing roots as she holds an nurtures who seems to be her child.
ASK Wellness Society, located at 433 Tranquille Rd. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

There’s no shortage of narratives about homelessness, crime and substance use issues in Kamloops (Tkʼemlúps). A number of claims about service agencies and the people they serve have circulated in recent months. These range from the idea unhoused individuals are bussed in from elsewhere to an alleged “poverty industry” created to profit off of homeless Kamloops residents.

The Wren investigated three dominant narratives about homelessness in Kamloops to discern fact from fiction.

Claim: People who are unhoused are being bussed into Kamloops from other communities

The Wren fact check: Misleading

Bob Hughes is the CEO of ASK Wellness Society, a social service agency focusing on outreach, housing and other support services for marginalized and at-risk residents. 

During a presentation given by ASK Wellness to Kamloops City Council on Nov. 15, 2022, Hughes was asked by Councillor Bill Sarai if the agency busses people into Kamloops.

Hughes responded that the claim “is an urban myth and there will be no evidence to be found because it doesn’t exist.”

“We are drowning in people,” he said. “Every single one of our beds is full. Our goal, driven by the principles of social work, is to help people and to help people get into housing and help them get better … there are more than enough people in this community that are desperate to get into our housing.”

Carmin Mazzotta, the city’s social, housing and community development manager, echoed this sentiment during a presentation on the status of social housing at the same council meeting. 

“This is an urban myth that exists in all urban centres — there is no organized effort to bus people into Kamloops,” he later wrote in an emailed response to questions sent by The Wren.

Mazzotta also pointed to a letter sent from Interior shelter operators and street outreach providers (including ASK Wellness Society) to the province in November, which noted instances where people have been discharged from hospitals or correctional facilities and dropped off at shelter sites. 

“This may be what business owners have seen, and it is not appropriate at all,” Mazzotta said. “However, these folks are not being bussed in from other communities.”

Part of living in a mid-sized Canadian city is that people from rural and remote areas will come to access services and amenities that might not exist in their home communities, Mazzotta added. 

This includes access to post-secondary education, recreational opportunities and community amenities as well as jobs and health care. 

“This includes people of all socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Mazzotta.

“Kamloops is a confluence of three highways,” echoed ASK Wellness’ Hughes in the Nov. 15 meeting. “We are a hub for a region that in many ways has experienced poverty and a dramatic impact from floods and fires … I think we need to start looking to the province.” 

So where did claims of drop-offs come from? 

As Mazzotta mentioned to council last year, cities across B.C., including Campbell River, Victoria and Duncan, often face pervasive rumours about homeless people being intentionally brought to certain municipalities. 

In reality, Point in Time (PiT) homeless counts, which biennially survey the visibly homeless population of a city, frequently reveal the majority of a city’s homeless population originated in that city. 

Kamloops is no different, according to its 2021 PiT results. The survey found that 28 per cent of respondents had lived in Kamloops for over 10 years, while 18 per cent had been in the city for between one and five years. Only 14 per cent of respondents said they’d been in town for less than six months. 

The top reason those who did move to Kamloops provided to PiT volunteers was that they already had family living here.

However, it seems one organization located outside of Kamloops has been held responsible for transporting a little over a dozen individuals to the city over a number of years. 

That organization is the VisionQuest recovery centre just outside of Logan Lake, about 70 kilometres from Kamloops. The centre serves Interior residents, many of whom are ordered to receive treatment at the facility by B.C. Corrections, with services to help them “successfully reintegrate back into society.”

Accounts of these drop-offs reach back a number of years and were acknowledged as recently as spring 2022 when former Kamloops RCMP Superintendent Syd Lecky pointed to this practice as a challenge for the RCMP. 

At the time, VisionQuest executive director Megan Worley told local news outlet Kamloops This Week (KTW) that between January and April 2022, 13 participants in the Logan Lake centre had requested to be dropped off in Kamloops.

Worley also told KTW that transporting clients is normally done as a last resort, but that the organization cannot hold people against their will — even if they are court-ordered to stay in recovery for a certain number of days. 

Claim: There are empty beds in local shelters and people are being forced to sleep outside.

The Wren fact check: Mostly false 

The 2021 PiT count in Kamloops identified 206 individuals experiencing visible homelessness, an increase from 201 in 2018. While point-in-time counts provide a snapshot of homelessness, they’re widely considered to be an underestimation of the total figure. 

The city and local service organizations have been working to increase the number of shelter and supported housing options significantly since 2016. Currently, the number of permanent shelter beds in Kamloops is about the same as the number of homeless Kamloops residents the PiT count reported.

“There are currently 210 shelter beds in Kamloops, and in mid-December when the extreme weather shelter opened at the Kamloops Alliance Church on very cold nights or during inclement weather, there will be 240 shelter beds in the city,” Mazzotta told The Wren. 

He also noted in a recent interview this is the highest number of available beds ever offered in Kamloops.

Mazzotta said Kamloops has never had such a large-scale response in terms of outreach, transportation and shelter capacity. 

“This is an incredible humanitarian response to save lives during the winter months being undertaken by local non-profit operators working in partnership with the City, BC Housing, and Interior Health.”

Despite the progress being made, one look at Kamloops’ streets and riverbanks shows it still isn’t enough. Are people outside because there’s nowhere for them to go or is there a different reason keeping them away from shelters? 

One reason could be the limitations organizations set for those accessing shelters. While technically open 24/7, some shelters require people to be on-site by a certain time in the evening. Not being there means risking losing your spot. 

Part of the reason organizations implement this rule is so empty beds can be identified and quickly filled with clients. But if residents don’t make it back in time, some beds could wind up empty, according to Mazzotta.

Another potential limitation is what’s known as a “limitation of service,” where an individual may be banned from a certain location due to their behaviour. 

ASK Wellness’ Hughes — who was quick to note ASK Wellness does not operate shelters, but offers outreach, housing, health care and employment — suggests there’s likely room to review how long those bans are in effect, and when they can be rescinded. 

“It’s a Catch-22. We are condemned for enabling and letting people do all this stuff and then the moment you … say, ‘Listen, you can’t be here, you’re violent to others, your behaviour is unacceptable and unmanageable,’ and you discharge them, you’re seen as not doing your job.”

Mazzotta told The Wren the limitation of service lists are reviewed frequently, especially in the winter months, to provide opportunities for previously-banned people to access shelter again. The overall goal is to maintain a safe and secure environment for everyone. If shelters feel unsafe, people might avoid them.

“In many cases, only known firestarters will not be allowed to enter,” Mazzotta explained.

Hughes suggests there are a number of reasons people are still sleeping outside, including a shortage of suitable housing types and housing across the entire continuum.

The continuum of housing is a term that defines the entire spectrum of shelter needed in a community. That includes culturally and age-appropriate, safe, accessible and affordable housing for everyone, including seniors, those with disabilities, families, those with pets and those needing support.

Supportive housing, in particular, is a type of housing aimed towards low-income residents and those in need of some assistance to live on their own. The city’s 2020 Housing Needs Assessment Report identified 153 applicants waiting for supportive housing to be available. 

Unhoused people would need much more of these units in the future, the report noted, explaining that “approximately 335 people who have experienced or are at high risk of homelessness will require housing with supports by 2025.”

Claim: Service agencies have a vested interest in keeping people in shelters.

The Wren fact check: False 

This idea could have some merit if shelter providers and operators in Kamloops were private businesses with the ultimate goal to generate profit. But they aren’t. 

This for-profit model is common in the United States where large corporations are given government funds to provide and administer social services including child support, Medicaid, health insurance and welfare. 

Kamloops does not have any private entities offering these on-the-ground services. 

In fact, independently audited financial statements and accounting for not-for-profit organizations in Kamloops providing services to unhoused residents are publicly available and easily accessible — including those of ASK Wellness, the Kamloops branch of Canadian Mental Health Association and The Mustard Seed, among others. 

The statements reveal exactly how money is received and spent every year. The majority of their funding comes from grants and loans with specific conditions related to providing services.

ASK Wellness’ Hughes says claims about nonprofit organizations’ finances are usually based on frustration, not fact.

“I think this idea comes from cynicism about the nonprofit sector. Somehow people don’t understand what a nonprofit is or does,” he says. “The notion so many organizations and institutions would collude to keep people poor and displaced and in torment, so that we can sustain our organizations, is offensive to a degree I can’t even fathom.” 

“We have no money that comes to us based on the number of people or new people coming in [to Kamloops].”

Mazzotta told The Wren a lack of sufficient social infrastructure in communities is the main hindrance in moving homeless Kamloops residents to stable forms of housing. 

“On the housing front, there are more than 200 folks on BC Housing’s coordinated access waitlist in Kamloops — these are folks who have been assessed and identified as suitable for supportive housing [who] can’t make that step because the housing simply isn’t available.”

All those interviewed for this piece were quick to point out there are many pathways to homelessness and these can often be compounded by health issues. Healthcare falls mostly under provincial jurisdiction. 

As these systems buckle under pressure across B.C. and Canada, Kamloops is competing for the same resources and support as other cities to address these larger systemic issues. 

These pathways to homelessness include the housing affordability crisis, the foster care system, intergenerational trauma as a result of colonization, the toxic drug supply crisis, the aging population and the correctional system — all systemic and structural crises that affect communities across the province.

In Kamloops, 47 per cent of PiT Count respondents identified as Indigenous though they represent 10 per cent of the general population. 

Forty-eight per cent of youth respondents had been in foster care or a group home, which are factors that have an impact on a person’s likelihood of experiencing homelessness.

An April 2021 report by the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning provides a review of major pathways relevant to three major disproportionately represented groups: Indigenous peoples, seniors and youth. 

The report concludes there is “no single cause” that accounts for a single person’s pathway into homelessness. 

Rather, a complex intersection of factors including system failures, structural factors and individual or relational circumstances impacts an individual’s risk of becoming unhoused. 

System failures could include youth being unsupported as they age out of care or a lack of support when a person is released from the hospital or the correctional system. 

One of the structural factors keeping people from accessing secure forms of housing is stigma, which serves to marginalize people from the wider community. 

Ultimately, local nonprofit organizations have very little sway over the structural conditions impacting homelessness — they simply respond to those conditions and support those impacted by them.

Mazzotta told The Wren that Kamloops isn’t alone in its fight to support unhoused residents. Across B.C. Many cities are facing the same challenges.

“City Councils advocate for the social infrastructure … that their communities need,” he wrote. “The challenge is that the major crises that serve as pathways into homelessness … are all systemic and structural crises that affect all communities across British Columbia and Canada.”

“Our Council is fighting for the same social infrastructure investments that all other comparable municipalities in B.C. are fighting for.”

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