By Vanessa Broadbent
Behind the stunning winery estates and booming tourism industry the South Okanagan has another class of citizens: those that can barely afford to make ends meet.
A community discussion on Wednesday hosted at the Sonora Centre in Osoyoos by South Okanagan Integrated Community Services and Desert Sun Counselling and Resource Centre, in part with the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, addressed poverty in the South Okanagan.
The event’s 26 attendees were split into groups and given two questions to answer: What are the issues facing you and people living in poverty now, and what would address these issues and help you and others out of poverty.
The first question was easy for participants to answer, with a lack of rental homes and apartments available paired sky-high utility bills, low food security and lack of public transportation topping the list of contributors to local poverty.
“I think that housing it the biggest issue as we move forward,” said Marieze Tarr, Desert Sun’s executive director.
Rick Knodel, RDOS Area C alternate director said that without something changing, poverty will continue to rise as the area becomes more appealing to tourists.
“The more you become a resort community, the more stress you put on the marginalized incomes,” he said. “Everything becomes too expensive for the marginalized.”
While one option may be to increase wages, Knodel noted that this isn’t ideal for small business owners, who are also important to local economies.
“You’ve got a very delicate circle so solutions are going to have to be very carefully handled.”
One recent immigrant shared her experience of paying $700 in monthly rent for a picker’s cabin with “horrible conditions,” which paired with an $800 monthly electric bill was unaffordable.
She said that her family could only use electric space heaters, which automatically turned off during the night due to faulty wiring.
Throw in paying $32 every day for childcare and the rising concern of crime in the area, and the cost of living is incompatible with the low wages most immigrant workers earn working on orchards or vineyards.
Sarah Moore, a teacher with YouLearn, a distance learning and continuing education school with campuses in both Osoyoos and Oliver, has witnessed poverty among students.
“I have kids who aren’t eating,” she told the group.
Moore said that this not only has negative impacts on the student’s health, but their learning as well.
“Why do they care what their test score is if they haven’t had food in two days … It’s frustrating to be a teacher and see this happening to my students.”
The second question required attendees to come up with solutions to lower poverty in the area, which were easy to brainstorm, but implementing them may be a little different.
Collectively, attendees compiled a lengthily list: raise awareness through a petition to present to town council and provincial politicians; promote using solar energy; implement water collection systems; create worker housing; implement rent control; create more employment opportunities; increase support for drug users; create support for temporary homelessness; promote integrated responses to crime; host forums and invite city councillors and local MLAs and MPs; subsidize housing or rent; increase food bank hours in Osoyoos; and create community soup kitchens.
While no fix-all solution was discovered, participants discussed hosting a second meeting and inviting local politicians and policy makers to attend.