History of JHSNOK

The Society now employs more than 50 staff working part-time and full-time in our shelters, residences and community programs.

Bill Hesketh and the early years

The John Howard 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 JHSNOK 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. One man died in the blaze. 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, JHSNOK had already purchased an old nurses residence from Vernon Hospital. The building was moved to its present location on 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.

JHSNOK 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 JHSNOK 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 – which continues to this day – and a shelter for abandoned kittens, run by the parolees.

By 1995 federal parolees occupied 27 of the beds available in t he house. All parolees were accepted into the Howard House program only after being assessed for suitability by JHSNOK 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 JHSNOK clients and other community members.

The Society now employs more than 50 staff working part-time and full-time in our shelters, residences and community programs.

A new vision

In 2014 the Board f Directors of the John Howard Society embarked on a planning process to create a 5 year strategic plan focussed on consolidating existing programs and expanding services. The challenges ahead include developing sustainable programs that are less reliant on government funding; renewing community relationships and service partnerships; and reaching out once again to incarcerated men and women and those in conflict with the law to support them in transitioning to healthy relationships and full citizenship.

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