While the RDEK is in the process of developing this year’s budget, the board directors has endorsed a request from the City of Cranbrook for additional financial support towards a staff role for homeless outreach and social services support.
The RDEK lent support to providing $85,000 towards the City of Cranbrook’s Social Development Coordinator position, a role held by Marcel Germer, during budget discussions on Wednesday, Feb. 7.
For the 2023 budget year, the City of Cranbrook funded $50,000, while the RDEK contributed $85,000 along with a promise to consider funding the same amount annually over the following two years.
Rob Gay, the chair of the RDEK board, noted that people in communities across the East Kootenay are facing housing challenges, adding that Cranbrook also serves as the social services hub of the region.
Gay said he heard loud and clear from Germer that housing is the most pressing concern.
“That really resonated with me, and I think with others on the board as well,” Gay said. “We’ve had discussions about housing societies and some communities are moving ahead faster than others but certainly we need to do some work with BC Housing and get some low-cost housing available for these folks and get them off the street.”
During Wednesday’s presentation to the board, Germer outlined her work over the last nine months since being hired on by the City of Cranbrook and the scope of her role working with a range of partners to support the unhoused and vulnerable population.
Germer said her first steps included meeting with a wide cross section of community stakeholders to get a sense of what resources and supports were already in place, while also working with Cranbrook bylaw services to visit encampments and hear their stories to dispel myths.
“That was really interesting to me, to go out and to really sit down and be able to talk to people and ask them how they got to their tent and and where they were from,” Germer said, “and really learn that most of those people — I’ve been working in the human services field for 25 years in this area — and most of those people I was quite familiar with, I knew them and a large part of them were local for sure.”
“It just showed that yes, we do have people coming in from other communities, but it was also that these were local people where things had gone sideways and were needing the help of the community, so I think that was a very important lesson to get from the start.”
Germer said she soon moved from information-gathering to coordinating and addressing service gaps, while also touting the formation of a Situation Table following a $75,000 grant from the provincial government.
“We’ve seen that just having all the agencies in the room has really started to lower the barriers of disconnect between services,” Germer said. “We’re seeing people not only coming to the table and having rigorous conversation about what we can do to help somebody in that moment, but they’re also conversing afterwards to say, ‘Well, hey, I’ve got another situation that I’m working on.’”
Two distinct areas where more support is needed includes responding to tent encampments and supporting youth as young as 12-15 years of age who are addicted to substances and involved in gang activity, according to Germer.
Another early element of Germer’s role included creating a framework and response plan for extreme weather shelter, which brought service providers and volunteers together to provide a shelter space, food and other necessities when temperatures cross a certain threshold.
That response plan was recently tested during January’s cold snap that brought bitterly low overnight temperatures across the province as Germer reported there were no fatalities and no cases of frostbite.
Based on feedback from service providers and those with lived experience, anyone living rough had opportunity to find shelter, even though there were approximately seven tents that remained out in the elements.
The Travelodge is currently serving as a temporary overnight shelter with 45 full-time beds that accommodate approximately 62 people, according to Germer.
Approximately 24 of the Travelodge guests are over 55 years of age who are able to live independently, but simply can’t afford a place to live.
Germer said she expects to see the unhoused population grow higher coming out of the winter months.
“My personal view after being out there is we haven’t peaked yet, that come in the next little while, not only are we going to see the ones we expected or the ones we’ve seen out there for a while now, we are going to see people sliding into poverty and then into tents, living out rough, because they are losing their places,” Germer said.
“The housing gap in Cranbrook right now is still significant. We do not have a continuum of housing. We have a shelter with very little opportunity for entry into, because it’s full, and then we’re missing a lot after that, until we get into maybe low-income housing and that is stretched thin.”
A permanent homeless shelter is currently being renovated in a space at the Community Connections Society of Southeast B.C. building, as the property was recently acquired by BC Housing. The crown corporation has hinted in the past that the adjacent parking lot, also included in the acquisition, could be developed for supportive housing.
Following a question from a RDEK board director on accessibility and advocacy for expansion of local substance use treatment programs, Germer placed an emphasis on fixing the housing gap first.
Germer said there needs to be a place where people can live, such as a pre and post-treatment housing option, as she reported there have been at least two overdose deaths in the community where individuals went off to a treatment program and came back to the area, but couldn’t find a place to live and began using substances again.