September 30, 2020

BY RYAN BOWMAN

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

Joe Roth is a guinea pig.RB4

The 64-year-old entered the laboratory – a five-storey, red-brick apartment building at 362 Erb St. W. in Waterloo – in the summer of 2010. He’s been there ever since.

Roth, who wears a Big Gulp cup attached to a string around his neck like a piece of jewelry, and constantly has a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, was one of 30 individuals selected for a housing initiative designed to combat chronic homelessness in the Region of Waterloo.

The Supportive Housing of Waterloo (SHOW) program, which receives both federal and provincial funding, provides people who have been homeless for one to 25 years with fully-equipped, one-bedroom apartments while offering them 24-hour supportive care.

The tenants, many of whom have addiction and/or mental-health issues, must receive Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program payments and cannot be employed.

The housing project, one of only three of its kind in Canada (the others are in Ottawa and Vancouver), is one of the ways the region is responding to its ever-increasing demand for emergency shelters.

“We have decided, as a region, that we really want to move people from homelessness to housing,” says Lynn Macaulay, housing service co-ordinator at Lutherwood. “We see that as a much better, long-term, more humane, more dignified solution.”

According to statistics compiled by the Homeless and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG), a multi-agency

organization committed to preventing and reducing homelessness in Waterloo Region, the number of people who used emergency shelters between 2009 and 2011 rose from 2,841 to 3,133.

That, combined with the region’s miniscule vacancy rate of 1.7 per cent, its average rent of $751 for a one-bedroom apartment and its scroll-length waiting list for affordable housing, earned the area a C-minus on its 2011 annual HHUG report card.

And while the default solution to increased homelessness has traditionally been more emergency shelters, local agencies are starting to push for more individualized and long-term solutions.

Dana Frigon volunteers at Mary’s Place, a Kitchener women’s shelter she used to frequent as a homeless teenager. The University of Waterloo student says she has seen first-hand how programs designed to prevent homelessness actually perpetuate it.

“Instead of focusing on fixing the problem, society is focusing on services that enable the homeless lifestyle,” she says. “There used to be more community involvement and people wanted to actually help others instead of just meeting their basic, immediate needs.”

Frigon, 27, says the majority of people living in poverty need more than just a place to sleep.

“With the services and the resources we have, there’s always a place for people to spend the night,” she says. “But there are very few services that focus on people in an individualistic way, or even focus on homelessness itself.”

Gael Gilbert, executive director of SHOW, says this oversight is especially apparent with the region’s Out of the Cold program.

The overnight shelter program, which has seen its number of guests skyrocket since it was launched as a pilot project in 1999, has grown to include nine churches and sleeps 60 people per night.

Many believe it has become a sort of crutch for people living on the fringe of poverty.

“While Out of the Cold is a terrific program, a lot of people agreed permanent housing was the way to go,” says Gilbert. “Emergency shelters serve very immediate needs, while (supportive housing) is a long-term solution.”

Gilbert, who has worked with marginalized individuals for the entirety of her adulthood, says the housing project on Erb Street aims to not only provide shelter, but also the support people need to live independently.

Staff members are on site 24 hours a day to provide tenants with everything from cooking tips to a shoulder to cry on.

“The goal of this place is to house everybody who needs to be housed while recognizing that everybody has different needs,” she says. “Just because you have psychiatric issues or substance abuse problems doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be housed.”

Since opening two and a half years ago, SHOW has retained more than two-thirds of its original

30 tenants, a rate which Gilbert calls “extremely successful.”

The only problem with this model of supportive housing, Gilbert says, is that there isn’t more of it.

“We could probably fill four more buildings this size,” she says. “The number of people using the Out of the Cold program and emergency shelters is astronomical, and it’s only getting worse.”

As for Roth, who used to frequent the floor at a friend’s farm house in Heidelberg, Ont., he says the experiment has been “incredible.”

“We live like kings,” says Roth, who was diagnosed as bipolar about five years ago and receives ODSP. “I don’t know how it could get any better.”

According to Roth, a program like SHOW exposes the fundamental flaws of emergency shelters – namely that they don’t eliminate homelessness.

“There, you’re staying in a church overnight and the next morning you’re back on the street,” he says. “This is an actual home. Fully furnished, towels, everything.”

Another organization which has taken the proactive approach to homelessness instead of merely managing the problem is Reaching Our Outdoor Friends (ROOF). In addition to providing essential services such as meals, showers and laundry, the 24-hour youth shelter also offers community outreach and regular programming.

Sandra Dietrich-Bell is the executive director at ROOF. She says the holistic approach to homelessness is especially important with youth.

“What people don’t understand is a lot of the youth we find that are homeless, there are other issues like mental health issues or substance use issues that are compounding the difficulty in terms of getting them housed,” she says. “If you don’t address the person as a whole person, and address all the things that are going on in their life, you’re never going to be successful.”

One of the ways Dietrich-Bell hopes to break the cycle of homelessness among young people is through the shelter’s social enterprise programs, which provide 40 youth per year with work experience and skills training. Following three-month work terms, the youth obtain their CPR, WHMIS and food-handling certifications and ROOF helps them apply for jobs.

“One of the biggest things we were hearing from youth when I first started here seven years ago was, ‘You guys give us a place to eat and a place to get out of the elements, have a shower or whatever, but we still can’t find a job,’” she says.

And while Dietrich-Bell says the program has been extremely effective, ROOF –  like SHOW – receives limited funding and a demand which far outweighs the supply.

The Kitchener shelter has a total of 15 beds, five of which are overflow, and consistently operates at 130 per cent occupancy. While stays can last from one night to several months, Dietrich-Bell says the goal is to get people in and out as quickly as possible.

“Shelters should be like Ontario Works – you get on it to get off it,” she says. “They should be looked at as transitional housing, not permanent homes.”

While Dietrich-Bell acknowledges shelters like ROOF serve a purpose in society, it should not be to “solve” the problem of homelessness. At the end of the day, she says, the goal of emergency shelters should be to eliminate the need for emergency shelters.

“Our job should be to run ourselves out of business,” she says. “There shouldn’t be a need for ROOF anymore.”

Next week, take a look into the future of homelessness in Waterloo Region.