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Randy Benson’s business is booming, but he won’t get a million-dollar bonus.
In 15 years on the job, Benson has quadrupled staff and serves twice as many clients daily, but that’s not necessarily good news, either.
Benson is executive director of Kelowna Gospel Mission, the downtown centre with shelter beds, meals and outreach work for the homeless and working poor.
“Not only has the number of homeless changed,” he said. “But the face of homelessness has changed.”
When Benson started at the Mission, it was where men could find a bed and hot meal.
He compared it to a “mom and pop” operation with 17 staff and beds for about 35.
Fifteen years later — Benson celebrates his anniversary Aug. 8 — it’s now offering dental care, about 100 beds for men and women, street-level outreach, social work and more.
There are roughly 70 employees and hundreds of volunteers donating time.
“We’re not just a shelter,” he said.
Benson admits that’s not what some might want to hear, but the need is great.
He came to the Mission after nearly a decade as pastor of Willowpark church in Rutland. An American, Benson studied ministerial work in Saskatchewan before working across the Prairies.
He landed in Kelowna in the early 1990s and never wanted to leave.
“We’ve been Canadianized quite a bit,” he said with a smile.
The job has changed to meet needs. While the Mission would house about 30 men per night when he started, it would also fluctuate.
“At Christmastime, actually, it would go down to 10 of 15 (overnight clients),” Benson added. “A lot of the homeless at that time, they had contacts through family. They might have had some place to go. The shelter was much more of a temporary stay for them.”
That’s not what is happening anymore. Now, you would have a hard time describing a “typical” homeless person.
A super-heated housing market, changing economy and continued division of rich and poor are making the Mission a necessary destination for more people.
There are those, the working poor, who could live on their own, but can’t find suitable homes due to lack of affordable housing.
“We’re seeing a lot more seniors, a lot more women,” he said. “And, probably, the complexity of mental health and addictions is huge out there.
“It’s an indication of what’s happening in our society,” Benson added.
A man of obvious faith, he doesn’t allow the increased demand to weigh him down. He considers seeing former clients come back as volunteers and staff one of his greatest triumphs. Adding the dental program and other social services are also proud moments in 15 years.
“It’s really exciting to see them get their feet under them again and become part of paying back and helping us out.”
On the flip side, Benson said there are some that are caught in the cycle of addiction and homelessness regardless of what the Mission offers.
“They’ll always be some individuals who continue to struggle,” he said. “There’s some faces I see today that I saw 15 years ago…. It’s not really a low point, but you wish they could make that step to wholeness.”
It takes a special character to keep coming back, said one employee.
Ed Penny is now in charge of maintenance at the shelter. He’s leading the charge in the Mission’s new outdoor courtyard and said Benson has unique qualities.
“It takes respect for your fellow man and commitment, of course,” he said. “You have to be caring. … You really have to have a big heart.
“I think he’s a great man. I really respect him a lot,”
As for the future, Benson realizes there’s much work ahead. The shelter is the focal point of public criticism for Kelowna’s obvious homeless problem.
Some suggest Leon Avenue is as bad as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Benson isn’t going anywhere, for a while.
“I’m certainly committing myself to 20 years,” he said. “At that time, I’ll make a decision. We’ll give it another five years, and then we’ll take a look at the landscape.”
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