One Big Question: Homelessness and shelter in Waterloo Region

Today’s guest blogger is Brian Kamm. In his role as Specialist, Community Investment at United Way Waterloo Region Communities, Brian hears from Partner Agencies and other community stakeholders about the realities of poverty in Waterloo Region.  “It’s easy to take sides and point fingers at who is responsible or who is to blame” says Brian, “ It’s harder to recognize challenges and work together. “

Brian hopes that this blog inspires reflection and about how we can all play our part in building a better community.

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With the warmer weather, “tent cities” have popped up again throughout Waterloo Region. Individuals who are homeless have pitched tents on public or private land because they see no other choices. Tent cities are the most obvious sign of the many complex factors that make people homeless, but there’s more to it than just having a place to stay.

In Kitchener this has included a mobile protest by local activists. They began by setting up a tent city in Victoria Park. After a few days they were moved to the front of a regional building at Queen and Weber, and then to Sandhills Park in Kitchener.  That was a short stay, and the protest is now behind a leather factory. Activists are calling on the region to address their responsibilities for housing and addictions supports for some of the most vulnerable community members.

In Cambridge, tent cities have sprung up in Hespeler. Residents concerned with public safety issues, such as used needles, are calling on the municipality to enforce by-laws.

All of these groups want the same thing: a community which is safe and accessible.

“It’s not just politicians,” notes Mayor Craig to the Waterloo Region Record. “It’s not just police or legislators-It’s all of us.”

We’ve seen success when regional government, working with local shelter providers like Argus Residence for Young PeopleHouse of Friendship and YW Kitchener Waterloo, divert individuals and families from the emergency shelter system to more appropriate supports.  The Housing First model in Waterloo Region guides all local shelters.

We know people coping with poverty are dealing with a complex set of causes including significant mental health issues and addiction, often rooted in past experiences of trauma; social isolation; and a lack of affordable housing.

For instance, people that are chronically homeless may appear to be seniors – but are actually in their 40’s and 50’s.  Living on the streets they’ve aged rapidly, and are experiencing physical & mental health and mobility challenges of those decades older.  Staff at SHOW (Supportive Housing of Waterloo) underscores this reality, noting that on average people who experience chronic homelessness only live until their early 50’s.

People with the most complex challenges have in the past been labelled as “unhouseable.” In part this has been a result of agencies being strapped for resources and lacking some of the skills to deal with the breadth of issues experienced by those termed “hard to serve.” While available resources continue to be a challenge, agencies have been building on their collaborative relationships, utilizing new approaches, sharing their expertise, and strengthening the entire support network.

Sitting at a network table of service providers helps to “keep the information flowing,” as the CEO at KW Multicultural Centre explained about why they participate in local networks. Each organization has expertise in a particular geographic neighourhood, or relationships with those from specific cultures, or are skilled in the area of mental health issues.

Complexity means that issues like housing won’t have one simple solution for everyone. 

Providing more affordable housing units is critical considering there were over 3,400 households on the affordable housing wait list in 2016/2017. It also means providing preventive supports and services that address knowledge and capabilities so people do not just find housing, but also stay housed.

United Way Waterloo Region Communities’ partner agencies are part of this network addressing community challenges.  They make successes happen in the here and now – providing emergency shelter to over 4,500 people, for example. They also collaborate to build skills for future successes – like the 400 people who developed financial and literacy skills, providing a stronger base for themselves and their families.

It’s everyone working together – contributing expertise, financial resources and sharing information – that makes change happen.