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Man injured, hypothermic after being trapped in garbage truck in West Kelowna

The man is believed to have used a dumpster to shelter from the wind chill, but found himself dropped into a garbage truck. RCMP say it's not uncommon for people to seek shelter in dumpsters as temperatures drop. (Tom Popyk/CBC - image credit)
The man is believed to have used a dumpster to shelter from the wind chill, but found himself dropped into a garbage truck. RCMP say it's not uncommon for people to seek shelter in dumpsters as temperatures drop. (Tom Popyk/CBC - image credit)

A man using a dumpster to seek shelter from the cold in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley found himself trapped inside a garbage truck early Thursday morning, an incident that outreach groups say highlights the dangers of the region's housing crisis.

Kelowna RCMP say they were called to assist after the driver of the truck heard the man banging on its walls. It's believed he may have been cycled through the onboard compactor twice before being rescued.

Police, ambulance and firefighters were involved in the rescue in West Kelowna.

RCMP Const. Mike Della-Paolera says the man had some "minor injuries to his limbs" and was hypothermic.

Temperatures in the area have been frigid recently, with wind chill making it feel like -19 C.

Tom Popyk/CBC
Tom Popyk/CBC

Della-Paolera says whenever that happens, there is a risk of people being injured as they are either exposed to the cold or move into dangerous situations in order to survive.

"Unfortunately, this is not the first time I've heard of this," he said of the trapped man. "It's a pretty sad state we're at when we have people that are hunkering down in garbage cans trying to stay warm."

'People are really struggling'

The Kelowna area is experiencing an ongoing housing and affordability crisis and struggling with a lack of shelter space.

Earlier this year, several shelter operators across B.C.'s Okanagan and Thompson regions sent an open letter to the province, municipal governments and Interior Health highlighting the lack of suitable shelter spaces in the region and the need for long-term solutions.

And a report from the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society warns the situation could become worse in the years ahead.

Journey Home was set up to co-ordinate efforts to end homelessness in the Kelowna region and, in June, delivered a report warning that without intervention, the number of unsheltered people in the city could more than double from roughly 400 now to nearly 900 by 2026, as more people move to the region and the cost of living increases.

Watch | Kelowna struggling with affordability, outreach worker says:

According to the latest census numbers, Kelowna is the fastest-growing census metropolitan area in Canada, and several other Okanagan communities are close behind.

At the same time, the living wage in the city is one of the highest in B.C., according to a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Living Wage for Families published in November.

In Kelowna, the city has set up a designated outdoor sheltering site as a place where people can sleep outdoors or in tents due to the lack of indoor spaces.

Told about the dump truck incident, camp residents didn't seem surprised someone would be seeking shelter in a dumpster.

"If I didn't have a shelter, I would, too," said one man who identified himself as James, adding that he had tried to get into shelters several times but always found them full before he decided to set up in the camp.

Watch | A man sleeping in a homeless camp describes the 'brutal' winter weather:

"People are really struggling right now," said Journey Home executive director Stephanie Gauthier, adding that the garbage truck incident was "heartbreaking."

Gauthier said shelters in the city are at or near capacity, forcing people to sleep in encampments, vehicles or anything else they can find.

James described the sleeping situation over the past week as "brutal" as temperatures dropped and cold winds blew in.

On Thursday evening, B.C. Housing started packing a 24-passenger "warming bus" at the outdoor sheltering site in an effort to address the cold.

The bus operates from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. through the weekend and will be deployed again as temperatures fall.

'Shelters aren't the solution'

Gauthier said while that can provide short-term relief, it doesn't address the root issues around why people are left out in the cold.

"What we need is housing... this is an affordability crisis that leads to homelessness," she said. "Shelters aren't the solution."

While newly elected mayor Tom Dyas has spoken about the need to address affordability in Kelowna, he has yet to reveal any specific policies.

More generally, municipalities have long been calling on the province to do more to address housing and affordability as it falls under the mandate of senior rather than local governments.

Last week, premier David Eby announced plans to set specific building targets for individual municipalities in order to increase the housing supply across B.C.