Garth Gorrel and his wife, Debbie Houghtaling, have been camping for two years along the Okanagan Rail Trail on the north side of downtown Kelowna, BC.
Gorrel, a former steelworker in Kamloops, and Houghtaling, who used to do online administrative work for an Alberta janitorial service, both lost their jobs due to layoffs at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hoping to find work, the couple moved to Kelowna, but had no luck. Unable to afford a rental apartment, they decided to take shelter outside.
“We’re staying there – home sweet home,” said Gorrel, standing near their makeshift home consisting of two tents, a vegetable garden and their dog Kismet.
“Don’t get in people’s way and everything will be fine.”
In May 2021, the City of Kelowna set up a so-called “outdoor shelter” on the Rail Trail where people could sleep in tents between 6pm and 9am each day. The main purpose of the designated campground was to discourage people from camping in city parks and other public areas. The city has since expanded the fee and estimates that about 100 people camp out daily.
However, the pair did not expect to encounter strangers intruding on their lives, driving through the encampment area, filming and hurling derogatory remarks at the campers.
“They drive by and say ‘crackheads’ or a guy came by with a megaphone (saying ‘Don’t do drugs.’
“We’re not all drug addicts,” Houghtaling said. “You feel like you’re on display.”
She believes those filming are a paycheck away from experiencing homelessness themselves. To her surprise, one of the videos they made was uploaded to TikTok over the weekend.
Two days later, federal conservative leader Pierre Poilièvre tweeted the TikTok video and received more than 11,000 likes.
“These images are not from a distant third world country. This is Kelowna after eight years of Trudeau and the NDP,” Poilièvre wrote in the tweet.
These images are not from a distant third world country.
This is Kelowna.
After eight years of Trudeau & the NDP. pic.twitter.com/Oj9M2WtujO
Campers, city rejects Poilièvre’s polarizing tweet
Houghtaling thinks it’s absurd that a politician would choose to use a TikTok video that lacks any context about the Rail Trail campers.
“Why didn’t he even come down and talk to someone here or drive by himself and film it himself?
“To use us on his platform to make him look like a better leader?” she said. “Anyone who says these are the people who run our country is laughable.”
Home to more than 222,000 people, the Central Okanagan is Canada’s fastest growing metropolitan area, according to Statistics Canada. Like many regions in British Columbia and Canada, it struggles with a rapidly growing homeless population.
Darren Caul, Kelowna’s director of security, estimates that the city has at least 200 people living outdoors, a fourfold increase in the past two years.
As a public servant, Caul says he doesn’t delve into politics, but thinks it’s unfair to single out Kelowna for its homeless population on social media.
“Communities across the province — across the country, in fact — are dealing with the unfortunate consequences of our economic and social conditions.
“It’s disappointing because it only shows a piece of our community,” he said.
Kelowna’s commitment to tackling homelessness
Caul says Poilivre’s tweet fails to acknowledge Kelowna’s world-class amenities, such as the beautiful Okanagan Lake, beaches and wineries.
He says it also fails to mention that the Central Okanagan municipality has introduced a five-year scheme Journey Home Strategy in 2017, partnering with BC Housing and non-profit organizations to address homelessness and addiction issues.
“Both housing and mental health and problem substance use are county government mandates, but that hasn’t stopped the City of Kelowna from rolling up its sleeves and getting involved,” Caul said.
The Journey Home Strategy is currently under review and the Kelowna City Council will decide whether to extend the program beyond 2023 based on the outcome.
Meanwhile, Gorrel and Houghtaling rely on meals and grants from the city’s Gospel Mission, a homeless support organization, as they continue to search for work and affordable housing.
“Twelve hundred (dollars a month) is probably best,” Gorrel said.
“Or even 1,500 (dollars per month) including utilities.”