Hidden, homeless students left in the Kamloops cold

Karla Karcioglu, Contributor Ω

The TRU Residence and Conference Centre is one of few on-campus housing options for students. - Photo by Karla Karcioglu

The TRU Residence and Conference Centre is one of few on-campus housing options for students. – Photo by Karla Karcioglu

When Sukh Matonovich, manager of student engagement and retention at TRU, sat down with the Kamloops Homeless Action Planning Committee she was shocked to hear that there are homeless TRU students. Students sleeping in cars, couch surfing, or sleeping in hotels all fit into the Canadian government’s definition of hidden homeless; “those without a place to call their own who live in a car, with family or friends.”

The Canadian Government has three definitions for homelessness. The dominant idea of homelessness is called absolute homelessness — those living on the streets or in emergency shelters. Homeless students generally fit into both or either of the government’s other two definitions, hidden or concealed homelessness as described previously, or relative homelessness, “those who are housed but who reside in substandard shelter and/or at risk of losing their homes.”

TRU was approached by the City of Kamloops to be a part of the Kamloops Homeless Action Plan (HAP) and to provide the lens and context of the university students in the Kamloops housing market. Matonovich was chosen as the university’s representative. She is working with HAP to identify student housing needs and to ensure housing is affordable and accessible to students. This information will go into a report titled the Kamloops Affordable Housing Needs Demand Study, which was planned to have been released to the public by late November 2012.

TRU is expanding with the newly developed law school and the announcement of an engineering school coming in the near future. Matonovich says it is important for TRU to ensure the structure and support for students is available.

“We’re going to do the full assessment, make some recommendations to the city and then back to TRU,” Matonovich said.

Matonovich is working alongside Tangie Genshorek, the HAP coordinator, who has been working with Kamloops HAP for two years.

Genshorek identifies the hidden homeless as people who are living in inappropriate accommodations, camper trailers and sleeping on friends’ couches. She also identifies those who are at risk of becoming homeless because they are one cheque away from losing their housing.

“Students can fit into all of those categories,” Genshorek said .”We’ve recently been able to start to tease out some of the housing numbers at TRU.”

Genshorek estimates there are approximately 5,000 out-of-town students looking for housing through TRU each year while the number of housing opportunities provided by TRU is less than 2,000.

“That leaves about 3,000 students looking for affordable housing in our community,” Genshorek said, “which will end up being basement suites, apartments and things like that, so we need to absolutely make sure that that housing stock is available to them.”

Glenn Read, director of ancillary services at TRU, said TRU provides just less than 900 beds for students between McGill Housing and TRU Residence and Conference Centre. A standard quad room in the Residence and Conference Centre costs as low as $744.75 a month. A standard quad room in McGill Housing costs as low as $488.88 a month. This monthly cost does not include various fees such as application fees, security deposit fees and residence activity fees. Furthermore, the McGill housing website states that “on-campus housing has the right to change any rate without warning.”

According to Read, prices are set by the facilities and are determined by the cost to operate the buildings — not by what students can afford — but TRU has the final approval. Read said he feels on-campus housing is reasonably priced and competitive in the Kamloops housing market. A new housing facility like the Residence and Conference Centre is not cheap to build and would cost upwards of $50 million said Read.

Upper College Heights, located across the street from TRU but with no affiliation to the university, costs as low as $500 per month for a quad room or $990 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Read said TRU also provides an online housing database for students to help them in the off-campus housing search. The website helps connect students with private land owners who are offering rental spaces in the city of Kamloops.

Genshorek identifies affordable housing as pivotal to one’s ability to work or go to school.

“How would you finish your studies and do well on your exams and move on to a great career if you’re not housed?” Genshorek said.

According to Genshorek, the main problem in Kamloops is the need to significantly increase the amount of rental stock. Venture Kamloops lists the city’s rental vacancy rate at 4.3 per cent. Kelowna boasts a good rental vacancy rate, 5.2 per cent, compared to the provincial average of 3.4 per cent, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s 2012 Spring Rental Market Survey.

Genshorek said as well as the limited housing availability, there are no incentives for developers to build rental units.

“We’re trying to make it possible for people to make money off of it, make it attractive, make it an economic venture that is viable because it hasn’t been for over 25 years in all of Canada,” Genshorek said.

As for vulnerable students who end up staying in hotels around town because of a lack of affordable housing, Genshorek said “there’s absolutely no reason anybody should be living in that and considering it housing.”

Both Matonovich and Genshorek see progress happening and are optimistic. They acknowledge the process of change is slow because of an abundance of complexities.

“We want to be able to get to a place where, as a community we understand the value of having students and people who come into our city,” Matonovich said, “instead of looking at it as an economic value.”