September 29, 2020

BY RYAN BOWMAN

This is the first of a five-part series examining the causes and consequences of homelessness in Waterloo Region.

At 53 years old, Mike looks like a man on the brink of giving up.

Swallowed by an oversized gray sweater, his scrawny shoulders are stooped forward, his head hanging like the withered bulb of a dying flower. His tired eyes are dark and void of any emotion, even as he speaks of the bouts of depression he battles on a daily basis.

“I would like to think I have a future beyond homelessness,” says Mike, who prefers to keep his last name confidential. “But when you’re doing all you can to survive day in and day out, it’s hard to look ahead.”

But as lonely as Mike may feel, he is not alone.

Dennis Watson, co-ordinator of the Trinity United Church location of Waterloo Region’s Out of the Cold program, says the number of people who used the overnight homeless shelter in November and December increased by 30 per cent over the same period in 2011.

According to Watson, who keeps statistics for each of the program’s nine sites, Out of the Cold has sheltered 3,722 people over its first two months this season. He says the number of people who have needed beds has risen steadily over the course of the program’s 15-year existence, a trend he calls “bothersome.”

But while the stats seem to suggest a rise in homelessness, Lynn Macaulay, housing services co-ordinator at Lutherwood, says it’s a difficult demographic to measure.

“The number of people who actually sleep outside in Kitchener-Waterloo is very, very small,” she says, estimating it may be around 100 at any given time. “There’s always that whole other group which includes people who are couch surfing, people who have no private space or no permanent address, or people who are living in places not designated for human habitation or places which are not safe.”

According to Macaulay, the vast majority of the homeless population is without shelter only temporarily. She says only 22 per cent of people who used emergency shelters at any point during 2011 returned to the shelter in the same year.

“Sometimes life events just happen to people,” Macaulay says. “There’s a job loss, there’s a death, there’s a fire or a huge trauma or victimization, and that’s just the last piece that pushes people into homelessness.”

For Mike, who was one of 36 guests to spend the night at First United Church in Waterloo on Nov. 2, the life event that sent him spiralling toward homelessness was quitting his job of 14 years with a local manufacturing company.

“I made the mistake of actually quitting my job about three years ago and found out it’s harder to get a job now than it used to be,” says Mike, who managed to find occasional work with a temp agency but couldn’t maintain a consistent income. “I never, ever thought I’d be in this situation. Even after I initially quit my job and started having to stay with other people, I figured sooner or later I’d find a permanent job.

“I really did not, until the first two or three nights on the street, realize that I was literally homeless.”

Macaulay says that while there are a multitude of reasons for homelessness, it often comes down to the simple matter of money.

“If you’re spending 90 per cent of your income on housing, chances are very good that at some point you’re going to get behind on rent and you’re going to get evicted. If you have no support, you end up on the street or living out of shelters.”

According to the most recent census data, the average cost of a home in Waterloo Region was $237,913 and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $787.

The current monthly shelter allowance from Ontario Works for a single person is $376.

Add to that the region’s miniscule vacancy rate of 1.7 per cent, and it’s no wonder people like Mike are unable to find adequate housing within their budget.

While Mike says he doesn’t entirely blame the government for his homelessness, he doesn’t think its programs do enough to help people in his situation.

“Unless you go looking for resources, you wouldn’t know they’re there,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of OW (Ontario Works) going the extra mile. I find you get more help at the soup kitchens and the other outreach programs than you get from social services.”

And while the government has tried to help Mike find places in rooming houses over the past three years, he says he would rather remain homeless than live in the cramped conditions government support would afford him – accommodations large enough for a bar fridge, a single mattress and little else.

“There’s been a couple times they tried to get me rooms, but I wouldn’t live in them if they paid me extra money,” he says with a shake of his head. “Just because they have limited resources doesn’t mean I should have to live like a rat.”

Macaulay says the problem of getting people with limited income into affordable housing is two-pronged.

“Completely blaming social policy, I think, is a bit misguided,” she says. “But at the same time, the other extreme that says, ‘The reason you’re homeless and you’re poor is because you can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get it together,’ is also false. The reality is a combination of the two.”

And while Mike and dozens of others have come to appreciate programs such as Out of the Cold, Macaulay says they are merely a Band-Aid solution to the social wound that is homelessness.

“You can spend dollars one of two ways,” she says. “One is to keep the homeless people more comfortable, the other is to try and move them from homelessness to housing.

“We have decided, as a region, that we really want to move people from homelessness to housing. We see that as a much better, long-term, more humane, more dignified solution.”

As for Mike, he says he is grateful for the program and would be sleeping on the streets if it didn’t exist

“At least you know there’s a place you can go to sleep and get a decent meal,” he says. “It’s probably the biggest thing I looked forward to this past summer.”

Next week, learn about the stigma and stereotypes facing Waterloo Region’s homeless population on a daily basis.