BY MIKE TURCOTTE-MCCUSKER
It’s no secret to anyone who lives in Waterloo Region that we have a homeless problem. You can’t avoid seeing it if you go through any of the three cores, whether it be King Street that runs through Kitchener and Waterloo, or Ainslie Street in Cambridge. However, few realize just how big a problem it is.
Although recent statistics from the Region of Waterloo indicate there are fewer homeless in the region, the concern is there are other problems that overshadow this minor improvement.
Regional Councillor Elizabeth Clarke provided Spoke with the latest statistics on the issue.
According to the document, 2018 Homelessness and Housing Stats, “Last year (2017) our region’s six shelters provided 78,787 bed nights to 2,726 homeless individuals. 845 (or 31 per cent) of those were women, 607 (22 per cent) were unaccompanied youth, and 246 (9 per cent) were dependent children. There were 130 families in shelter. The average length of stay in shelter was 29 days for single adults and youth, and 43 days for families. Although the number of homeless people decreased by 5 per cent last year, shelter occupancy increased, because people stayed longer in shelter, and this is a year-over-year trend.”
In contrast, a 2013 survey by HomelessHub, a Canadian web-based research library and information centre, estimated 3,492 individuals were living in emergency shelters and another 2,719 families were on a housing wait-list in Waterloo Region.
These statistics show a decrease of 766 homeless individuals in shelters from 2013 to 2017 which is good news, but other issues need addressing.
The Region of Waterloo recognizes the crisis and is devising a Waterloo Region Housing Master Plan, which it hopes, when deployed, will empty the shelters across the region, although at great expense. Unfortunately, the people working on it acknowledge the plan has flaws.
But before getting into the plan, one should look at the current situation, and understand there are multiple sides to the story.
Chris (a pseudonym) was willing to talk about his situation but refused to give his name or let his picture be taken. He was interviewed on King Street in Kitchener, near THEMUSEUM, while holding a cardboard sign begging for money, commonly known on the streets as “flying a sign” or simply “flying.” He didn’t speak a lot, but did say that he had been homeless for “far too long.” When asked for his view on homelessness in the region, and his views on the supports available, he said, “People don’t want to use the shelters. Some people would rather sleep outside than deal with the bullshit in the shelters. Plus, it’s not like they really care anyway.”
Chris is one of many people who face hard times in the city’s core. However, he isn’t alone. This past winter, the region faced a massive crisis, with multiple shelters overflowing because of freezing temperatures. The House of Friendship Charles Street Men’s Hostel in Kitchener and The Bridges shelter in Cambridge both reached capacity, forcing St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Kitchener to open its temporary overnight drop-in shelter. Despite having space for 70 people, it too was soon full, and the region had to put people up in motels, a costly alternative.
Homelessness isn’t just a problem that has sprung up out of the blue in the region. For more than 16 years area churches operated a program called Out of the Cold, taking turns opening their doors to the homeless at night from November to April, and providing hot meals. Often up to 200 people would show up to eat, while 80 or more would stay the night.
However, the program, which was run by volunteers, slowly ceased to operate, with the last church closing its operation in 2015, being unable to handle the demand and chaos that came with servicing such a large number of people. In an attempt to handle the fallout from the churches ending the program, a transitional shelter was opened by the region and staffed by the YWCA.
Fast forwarding to the present, Waterloo Region has trudged along, with no new shelters built to offset the closing of the Out of the Cold program.
Richard McLean, who has worked for multiple agencies in the region such as the YWCA women’s shelter and The Working Centre, knows all about the plight of the homeless, as he has experienced it first-hand. He said, “Too many people see homeless people as the problem when they really are the result of the problem.”
When asked about what he felt the core issues were, and why the region has faced such an ongoing crisis for more than a decade, McLean said, “Ultimately, it’s due to a lack of support for people with addiction and mental health issues. I think people who are homeless and living with either of those issues are not getting their needs met and therefore stay homeless for longer periods of time and often return to homelessness more often. The Out of the Cold churches were to be a short-term solution but the government in the cities where the churches operated, in my opinion, dropped the ball and let someone else deal with the issue of homelessness and turned their collective backs on the issue.”
When asked what sorts of changes he would like to see, as someone who has been on both sides of homelessness, McLean talked far more about adding supports and modifying the way the shelter systems worked.
“Something the region is seriously lacking are wet shelters; a place where you will still have a bed even if you are under the influence. Currently with the shelter system, those under the influence are not permitted to stay, which forces them out into the streets. The current system warehouses everyone they don’t know what to do with, under one roof. It leads to many people not getting their needs addressed. Staff are often not trained in addiction and mental health, and so are only able to provide minimal support.
“Also due to warehousing, more crisis situations arise, resulting in the staff focusing on the rabble-rousers, rather than helping the quiet ones get their needs met,” he said.
“The homeless need to stop being viewed as throw-away people and need to be recognized as valuable citizens who have the right to be treated with respect and dignity. Being treated this way is the first step for them to realize that they do have worth and begins the healing process and their journey back to (living in a home).
“We need separate shelters for different issues with staff being trained in specific forms of support geared to the type of shelter, leading to quicker transition from street to home for many, and fewer people returning to the streets as often.”
Waterloo Region, however, doesn’t agree it would seem, as they are about to pour over $3 million into what is essentially a giant shovel to empty out the shelters, moving people into housing, albeit without any real support for their underlying issues.
Regional Councillor Elizabeth Clarke described the Waterloo Region Housing Master Plan that is currently under development.
“So, there’s about $3.5 million that’s going to start to be spent in April, specifically on helping people find housing, providing supplements so that they can pay their rent and providing supports for them for up to a year, maybe 18 months.”
I believe that the goal is to have about 200 people come off the (regional housing waiting) lists and be placed into a new program in terms of the actual construction of new community housing. In addition to that, the region is doing a master plan for the housing that they own. The master plan right now is to look at how to optimize things. A lot of the region’s projects are very old, they’re built in the ’70s and ’80s, and so we want to do what we can, to make better use of the space that these old projects have. No decisions yet have been made, it’s still under development, but I’m on the committee, so I think that the hope is we’ll have the resources to build more housing. We are hoping to have this in effect sometime later this year.”
Criticism of this “Master Plan” revolves around the fact it does not offer support for addictions and mental health which some people feel is desperately needed. Clarke said, “Housing is where all of the investments are going right now. Not just regionally but provincially and federally. There’s no new money for shelters. In fact, the shelters are generally either frozen or they’re having their funding cut and more and more money and resources are going into just housing, or cutting down on waiting lists.”
Clarke also said, “There’s really two big reasons I think why we’re seeing the backlog in the shelters that we are. And one is the shortage of affordable housing. Rental housing is disappearing everywhere and it’s getting more expensive. The vacancy rate is dropping. Rental units are turning over into condominiums. There’s just not as much rental housing out there at all. Just a couple of weeks ago I read the updates we get quarterly about any development applications, and there were four or five development applications to change a rental housing into condominiums.
“I think more importantly though is the support piece,” Clarke said. “The people that we’re getting that are staying in the shelters now tend to have much higher needs, so we tend to see much more mental health issues among people, as well as much more addictions. We always used to have a few people who were dealing with those sorts of things, but now it’s become the place where people have these significant needs. So even if we were to say, here’s a free apartment, these are people who are not going to be successful because they really need support. Their needs are much more complex; they need more than simply affordability.”
This is exactly what others have been saying. So, the fact that the Master Plan does not address a support system is problematic.
Clarke said the Master Plan is really about getting people out of shelters into housing.
“All of the resources are going into getting people out of the shelters. The hope is that this works … Also, this is a national direction, this isn’t just local. If this works, we’re not going to be needing shelters the way shelters are now. So, the hope is, and this is the philosophy, we haven’t seen it actually happen … but the hope is that the shelters will be for people who find themselves in an emergency. Something happens. You’re homeless, and within a maximum of 30 days you’re in your house. So, they’re looking at shelters as being much more of a very short term, very housing-based emergency.”
Since the Master Plan doesn’t address a support system, naysayers believe that people with more extreme needs will simply end up back on the streets. Clarke agreed, saying, “That is exactly what happens; we see that happening. We have seen people be housed and come back to the shelter two and three times in a year because we’re so eager to get them out and get them housing. Our intentions are good; we say people deserve a real home, they shouldn’t be in shelters. But, because there’s not a lot of choice out there, there’s not a lot of supports out there, we put them into places that don’t meet their needs and that are not ideal for them. They (the housing) don’t come with the supports they need and the people end up back in the shelter.”
So, the obvious question at this point is, why doesn’t the plan include a support network? If Waterloo Region recognizes that lack of support for the homeless is a major issue, and that this Master Plan is flawed, why is that not being addressed? Clarke blamed the provincial and federal governments.
“I think that the shelters, both the people who live in the shelters and those who work there, see those negatives, but I don’t think that decision-makers see those negatives, and all of the funding that’s coming now from the province and from the federal government is very, very clearly for housing first. It’s an attractive philosophy, but my personal feeling is that we don’t have the resources yet to put all of our eggs into that basket. And I think that if you were to talk to any of the shelters, they’d say that they’re really struggling. They just don’t have enough resources to deal with the numbers, but even more importantly to deal with the issues that they’re stuck dealing with.”
Looking deeper at the Master Plan, Clarke explained some crucial details that also outline some major flaws in the plan.
“Support for residents who are taken from shelters and put into housing may not come for a year or two after the fact. Support workers are not typically trained specifically in addictions or mental health support, and will be there to provide residential support mainly, but may be able to help broker communication between hospital or mental health treatment and residents. Support is for three to 12 months, although slightly flexible. People will not be simply dropped at the 12-month mark. Lastly, support workers will carry an average caseload of one worker per 15 residents.”
To some, this Master Plan seems to be nothing more than a Band-Aid applied to the wounds of the region, rather than a solution to the core problems.
However, the regional government isn’t the only one working on large projects throughout the tri-cities. The Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG) is a network of agencies and individuals working to end homelessness and create affordable housing in Waterloo Region.
All of the work HHUG does is overseen by a steering committee which includes members from Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and the surrounding rural area, as well as members from the region. At least two members must have experience being homeless.
Lynn Macaulay, initiatives co-ordinator for HHUG, was asked for her opinion on the state of homelessness in the region. She said, “So the reality is that we have way too many people in this community who are experiencing homelessness or who are precariously housed and while there is a lot that is being done in this region to support people in those circumstances, clearly we’re not doing enough. And we know the devastating impact that homelessness has on people’s physical, mental and emotional health as well as their spiritual well-being. So, it really is completely unacceptable that we have the level of homelessness that we have in our community despite a lot of good intentions and good work by a number of agencies and people.”
When discussing the recent statistics and how numbers have gone down, despite people staying in shelters longer, Macaulay said, “The fact that our numbers are decreasing is actually a good thing because they should, in fact, as a percentage of the population be increasing. So, the fact that our numbers are in fact holding their own or decreasing slightly actually is an indication of how much work we’re (HHUG) doing in our community. Having said that, having 3,000 people using our shelters is completely unacceptable.”
Macaulay said HHUG will be working on a couple of initiatives in partnership with Waterloo Region from 2018 to 2025, including the Homelessness to Housing Stability Strategy which includes a number of new frameworks such as the Portable Housing Bases Support Framework and the PATHS Framework.
With recognized flaws in the region’s Master Plan, the region will need all the help they can get from other agencies, and only time will tell how things play out. The hope is that more funding will become available to put a support network in place, but until that time, the region will continue to have a serious homelessness problem that may get worse before it gets better.