The Society now employs more than 70 staff working part-time and full-time in our employment, addiction's recovery, housing, shelter and community programs.
Bill Hesketh and the early years
The Society began offering services to men and women in Okanagan in 1957. Originally based out of Kelowna the Society grew over the years, eventually providing services throughout the Okanagan, the Thompson region and the Kootenays.
In 1961 Bill Hesketh was hired to provide case management to men and women, and their families, in the Okanagan and Kootenays who were recently released from jail. A graduate of the University of British Columbia Social Work program, Bill began working for the John Howard Society in Vancouver in 1955. His work in the Okanagan and Kootenays called on him to travel throughout the region to meet with clients and connect them with employment, local social services and housing.
Decades before the term “social enterprise” was recognized, Bill established Howard Industries and Self-Help Industries to provide meaningful employment for Howard House residents and clients. Howard Industries quickly obtained forestry contracts throughout the Okanagan and Kootenay regions (including the first Tree Farm License in the province run by a non-profit), leased farm land for agricultural operations, operated a recycling facility in the North Okanagan and a cedar shake mill, and ran a carpentry shop that built furniture and provided survey stakes to the forest industry and BC Hydro. Residents were also trained to care for Morgan horses – used both for horse logging and community sleigh rides on the Commonage during the winter.
Recognizing that the lack of affordable housing was a significant problem, Bill worked with local church groups, Alcoholics Anonymous volunteers and governments to open the first Howard House hostel in Vernon in 1967 at the old Topping family farm house. The hostel provided room and board for hundreds of transient men from December 1967 to April 1973 when the building burnt down. The residents were temporarily housed at Camp Hurlburt on Lake Okanagan owned by Trinity United Church. While there, the men built a chapel using logs they obtained from a contract to clear land for the Revelstoke Dam.
At the time of the fire at the original Howard House, the Society had already purchased an old nurses residence from Vernon Hospital. The building was moved to 43rd Street and men moved into the building almost immediately. After 4 years of repairs and renovations the building was officially opened in 1974 and became the new Howard House.
The Society also worked closely with addictions recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous to provide recovery services to clients and Howard House residents. By 1974, Bill had dedicated a number of rooms at the new Howard House for addictions recovery and worked closely with the hospital and the Health Unit to expand detox and ongoing support programs for addicts. Literacy programs and cognitive skills training were added over the years.
The Society began providing direct residential and rehabilitation programs to minimum security inmates on Federal parole in 1978 at a forestry camp near Lumby and by 1985 at a Society owned woodlot in Lavington. Parole supervision at Howard House was also provided during this time and the Corrections Canada contracts soon reflected that parolees from medium and maximum security prisons began to be accepted.
The Society had been operating as a regional “branch” of the John Howard Society of BC up until 1990 when all regional groups in the province became independently registered as non profit societies in British Columbia.
Tragedy and transformation
By 1990 Howard House regularly housed 57 men per night – but numbers rose to as high as 90 during the summer months when fruit pickers and other transient agricultural workers arrived in the Okanagan. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Howard House continued to be the focus of the Society’s work – but farm work (on a property on the Commonage) and forestry work (on the woodlot) continued to be an option for transient and homeless men, and those on parole.
After Hesketh’s retirement in the early 1990s, Teresa Sparrow became the new Executive Director for a few years and in 1996 Jo-Anne Crawford was hired as Executive Director. Working with the local Federal Parole Office and a staff that included a House Manager, a psychologist and an employment counsellor, the Society’s halfway house contract with Corrections Canada became the mainstay of our programs. Crawford expanded programming at Howard House to include a large community garden and a shelter for abandoned kittens, run by the parolees.
By 1995 federal parolees occupied 27 of the beds available in the house. All parolees were accepted into the Howard House program only after being assessed for suitability by staff and their parole officer, and a community committee that included an RCMP officer. There were far more success stories than failures from 1978 to the early 2000s and the halfway house gained a reputation for innovative programming and strong community connections. But starting in 1996 – when a parolee who had previously been at Howard House murdered his female room mate- community concern began to grow regarding the presence of a halfway house in our community. In 2000 another former resident of Howard House was charged with murdering his common law wife. Although in neither case were the parolees a resident of Howard House at the time of their crimes, their presence in the community was linked to the halfway house.
No matter what the challenges and successes the Society had had in the past, nothing could have prepared staff and Board members for the turmoil that resulted from the tragic murder in August of 2004 of Bill Abramenko – an active, well known senior – by a parolee who was UAL (unlawfully at large) from the halfway house. The parolee, Eric Fish, had failed to return to the house in June, but the community had not been informed and he was not apprehended until a few days after the murder.
In the months following the murder the contract with Corrections Canada, which funded the halfway house, was revoked and the Executive Director took a leave of absence and then resigned in early 2005. The Board of Directors for the Society hired Barbara Levesque to act as interim Executive Director and in the summer of 2005 she accepted the permanent position. At that time the Society employed only 6 full-time and part-time staff.
It was clear that in order to survive, the Society would have to transform its operations. Beginning in 2006, the rooms previously occupied by parolees on the second floor of Howard House were slowly renovated and updated to accommodate men seeking to stabilize their lives while paying room and board to the Society. New contracts were negotiated and signed with BC Housing to fully fund the 16 bed homeless shelter and over the years new programs were funded through community partnerships. Nine bedrooms were set aside to provide an in-house addictions recovery program in partnership with Interior Health, the employment program (WorkFirst) was expanded through contracts with Service Canada, and a new homeless shelter for men and women – Gateway Support Services – was opened in 2008 in partnership with BC Housing.
In the following years, a Homeless Outreach Coordinator was hired to work with landlords and those seeking affordable housing – including single men and women and families. The Employment Program was expanded again in 2011 through a partnership with North Okanagan Community Futures under a WorkBC funded contract, and Bill’s Place Recovery House and Apartments was opened in 2012 to provide addictions recovery services to men in a sober living environment.
The Society also divested itself of programs and services that no longer fit its mandate, including the woodlot and the lease on the Commonage farm – but the large community garden at the Howard House continues to thrive, providing thousands of pounds of vegetables every year for house residents.
Howard Industries Ltd. was revived in 2010 as a profit making social enterprise providing employment opportunities to clients and other community members.
In 2015 the Society received a generous donation of a large office space from Mike and Beverly Davies. Their request was to ensure the office was a space for community collaberation.
The Society now employs more than 70 staff working part-time and full-time in our shelters, residences and community programs.
In March of 2017 the Executive Director took a leave of absence and the Director of Operations, Kelly Fehr was hired as the interim Executive Director. By April the Board of Directors had hired a Co-Executive Team consisting of Kelly Fehr and the Director of Human Resources and Development, Randene Wejr.
A new vision: A new mandate; a new name; providing serves to women; community health & safety; focus on supported housing alternatives; addiction’s recovery
In 2017 the Society’s board and staff conducted a thorough evaluation of it’s programs, the gaps in services in our community and the needs of the citizens we serve. It became clear that our services are not consistent with those of the John Howard Societies across BC. We set new mandates which focus on housing, homelessness, building community and opportunity along with focusing on addictions recovery services and advocacy. In April 2017 the Society started on this path by opening up all of its programs to women. The Society contracted with Interior Health on a number of projects and strengthened its relationship with BC Housing. The Society partnered with BC Housing bringing a new shelter and a new supported housing project to Vernon along with an $11,000,000 investment into our community by the province. These two projects are slated to open in 2018. BC Housing expanded their Temporary Winter Shelter funding allowing for 33 spaces from 10 in 2016 and funded the program to be open 24 hours a day from 12. The Society worked closely with Interior Health to ensure addictions recovery and supported recovery housing options were available to women and men in Vernon. Our Creekside Harm Reduction program opened its doors to women and Interior Health provided new funding for 8 of the 19 co-ed clients of Bill’s Place Addictions Recovery Program. Interior Health also provided new winter funding for supports to reduce the number of visits to the hospital while connecting shelter clients with health services and needed supports. The Society received an incredible donation of $200,000 from the Foord Family for the down payment of a new sober living complex which opened January 2018. In 2018 we have also renewed our employment contract with Community Futures and the Food Services Agreement with the Vernon Upper Room Mission Society.
In November 2017 the John Howard Society of British Columbia amended their affiliation agreement, affiliation fees and service plans. In February 2018 our Society decided not to resign with the John Howard Society of BC and with the Hesketh Family’s blessing and great excitement our Society was in the position to proceed with re-branding. Though this is an exciting time for our community there is sadness in leaving the John Howard Society of Canada family. The John Howard Society has a long history of strong advocacy and amazing programs world wide. Our Society is very proud of the groundwork the Society’s founder Bill Hesketh laid and the work we have accomplished over the last 60 years. We will continue to meet those standards of service delivery and compassion and strive to reach new heights.