September 30, 2020

BY RYAN BOWMAN

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

It’s a Saturday evening, but the Bethany Evangelical Missionary Church in Kitchener is packed.

A group of people are congregated in the carpeted foyer, their hair and shoulders dusted with freshly fallen snowflakes, chatting casually about the city’s current cold snap and the Super Bowl. Several others pace the halls while another leans against the door to the sanctuary, a dark puddle of water forming beneath his heavy winter boots.

Most of the visitors, however, are gathered in the giant gymnasium at the back of the building.

There are about 70 of them and they are segregated to one side of the room.

Beneath the bright fluorescent lights and the ancient basketball net, they sit on green plastic chairs surrounding a dozen or so scarred wooden tables, some round, others rectangular, each topped with a pitcher of amber iced tea.

The air in the gym is humid and smells of meat and burnt coffee. The mood is sombre, the monotonous murmur of competing conversations interrupted only by the occasional cough or the scrape of silverware. The majority of the guests are only half-listening to one another, lost in heaping plates of roast beef, mashed potatoes and mixed veg.

On the other side of the room, separated from the makeshift cafeteria by a long steel divider, about 40 single mattresses are spread across the concrete floor like fallen casualties. They are buried beneath multi-coloured comforters, piles of rolled-up clothing and frayed backpacks bursting at the seams.

They are where some of the people devouring their roast beef dinner will spend the night.

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According to the most recent census data, Waterloo Region is home to one of the highest median incomes in all of southern Ontario and 96 per cent of the labour force worked at some point during the last year.

A full quarter of all households earn average incomes of above $100,000, and there are far fewer “low income” households – 10.2 per cent – than the provincial average of 14.7 per cent, and the national average of 15.3 per cent.

Sandra Dietrich-Bell is the executive director of Reaching Our Outdoor Friends (ROOF), a 24-hour shelter and resource centre for homeless and impoverished youth.

She says the region’s relative level of wealth and affluence makes its rising homeless numbers hard to swallow.

“I think it’s ridiculous and shameful that in an area as rich as this we have anyone who sleeps outside,” she says from an upstairs room in the downtown Kitchener youth facility. “I think homelessness could be eliminated 100 per cent in this country.”

Lynn Macaulay, housing service co-ordinator at Lutherwood, contributes the widening gap between the rich and poor to a selfish society.

“Part of what I see in our culture is that we are very individualistic and we have an expectation that government is going to look after other people’s needs,” she says. “I think we change how we look at people who are vulnerable and marginalized within our own communities. We have a collective responsibility to look after the basic needs of everybody who’s living in this region.”

One group that has been looking after the basic needs of homeless people since 1999 is OOTC.

Cathie Savage, who has been with the overnight shelter program since its inception and serves as the co-ordinator at the First United Church site in Waterloo, says the initiative was launched as a response to social service cuts made by the Progressive Conservatives at the turn of the century.

“At that time, Mike Harris was the premier in power and he was saying the government couldn’t afford to continue to support social programs and the churches needed to be doing more,” she says. “Some people took that as a challenge.”

Over the next 14 years, OOTC grew to include nine churches and today relies upon hundreds of volunteers and tens of thousands of dollars in food donations each winter.

And while many of the area’s homeless population would be sleeping on the streets without the local church community’s compassion, local advocates are concerned about the rising number of people using the service.

According to Dennis Watson, co-ordinator of the Trinity United Church site, the need for beds has risen steadily ever since the program started. The number of people who slept at OOTC sites in November and December 2012 was 30 per cent higher than the same period in 2011.

Dietrich-Bell says the problem with programs like OOTC is that although they serve basic immediate needs, they fail to address the root causes of homelessness.

“It’s a bit of a catch-22,” she says. “I know shelters are absolutely necessary and I fought for two years to get ROOF into a position where we could be a shelter, but I think in some measures it is very much a Band-Aid solution.”

Dietrich-Bell says programs like OOTC take the onus off of the province to address the issue.

“To me, a shelter or Out of the Cold lets the government off the hook,” she says. “Because we operate the shelters as a community, there’s not enough pressure on them to do what would really end homelessness.”

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So the question is a simple one: what would really end homelessness?

The answer, Macaulay says, is not so simple.

“There are enough really bright people looking at this and there is enough public and government will that if there was one thing we could do to solve homelessness, we’d have done it,” she says. “The reality is, it’s a complex problem and it’s going to require a complex, multi-faceted response.”

The one thing most experts agree on, however, is the need for funding. And if funding means higher taxes, Macaulay says, so be it.

“If we don’t have tax increases, we’re actually decreasing services,” she says. “If we want the government to look after people who are vulnerable or marginalized, we need to be prepared to pay into the collective pot that allows them to do that.”

Gael Gilbert is the executive director of Supportive Housing of Waterloo (SHOW), a provincially and federally funded program providing people who have been defined as persistently homeless with fully-equipped, one-bedroom apartments and 24-hour supportive care.

“I, as a taxpaying citizen, want my tax dollars to look after people,” she says. “I think that’s what makes a civilized society. There has been too much thrown by the government onto our shoulders and it’s the most vulnerable in the community who  suffer because of it.”

Funding, however, is only the first step. Deciding what to do with it is the next.

“You can spend dollars one of two ways,” Macaulay 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.”

In other words, fewer emergency shelters and more sustainable housing initiatives like SHOW.

One of only three housing programs of its kind in Canada, SHOW was spawned by a group of Out of the Cold volunteers desperate for a long-term approach to homelessness. Since opening its doors in 2010, SHOW has retained about two-thirds of its original 30 tenants.

According to Gilbert, that’s an extremely successful ratio for a program designed not as a stop gap solution but as a permanent place for people to live.

In fact, Gilbert says, some of SHOW’s tenants may never leave. She says that’s what makes the program so unique – and so successful.

While shelters are designed to get people in and out as quickly as possible, the purpose of SHOW is to provide shelter and support for as long as people need it.

“Most services will say to you, ‘In order to live here you must be clean and sober.’ Here, we don’t condone active use of drugs and alcohol, but it’s a part of how people live and we don’t judge,” she says. “We try and help them recognize the harm the addiction is doing and help them respond to that harm, but we try not to infantilize people.”

In short: “We do whatever we can to help them remain stably housed.”

Gilbert says part of what makes programs like SHOW effective is their individualized support. Instead of simply paying someone’s rent and handing over the keys, they meet the various needs of their tenants.

Joe Roth has been with SHOW since its inception. He says the 24-hour support has helped him countless times.

“There’s some really good people here,” he says of the apartment building on Erb Street in Waterloo. “I don’t care who you are, this place would help anybody.”

Dietrich-Bell says an approach like SHOW would work well with homeless youth.

“Wouldn’t it be ideal if 10 youth were living in apartments and each had a primary worker who went there a few times a week and helped them cook and helped them with laundry and helped them maintain relationships with their landlord?’” she says. “It’s supported, yet independent, living.”

Macaulay says a model like SHOW also makes sense financially.

“From a taxpayer point of view, (homeless people) use a high number of services in terms of hospitalization and in terms of police calls,” she says. “It’s much more affordable to keep people housed and support them than to kind of keep people’s needs met through emergency services.”

However, Gilbert admits, supportive housing isn’t perfect.

First off, there’s the fact that the supply level of these services is constantly dwarfed by the ever-increasing demand.

SHOW has only 30 apartment units. ROOF has 15 beds, five of which are overflow. There is currently a waiting list of 1,500 for the city’s various affordable housing initiatives.

The most glaring issue it fails to address is the “backwards” welfare system practised by the province.

For instance, she says, it punishes people for working by clawing back Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Plan (ODSP) payments when they receive employment income, minimal as it may be.

“You can get a part-time job as a way of stepping out of poverty and re-establishing a more productive life, but you’re punished for it. Under the current system there’s very little incentive to work.”

Gilbert says SHOW residents, who must receive OW or ODSP payments to live there, have had opportunities to work but would rather live comfortably with a lower income than make slightly more and struggle to find adequate accommodations.

“Their choice is, ‘Do I have a roof over my head, or do I have a part-time job and go back on the streets?’” she says. “The system needs to take a good hard look at itself and really figure out how to get people off of welfare and allow them to earn some money and live in living conditions that are beneficial to them.”

According to Gilbert, another problem facing the homeless is the lack of OHIP funding for certain types of health care.

“You’re on the street for 10 years, you haven’t been to a dentist, you’re missing half your teeth, you want to go get a job but your self-esteem is not where it needs to be. Or you may not be able to see and need glasses.

“You’d think these are basics, but according to the system they’re not. All these basic supports in our system have been eroded,” she says. “We have a health system which in many ways is terrific but still has some serious gaps for the most marginalized of society.”

So while the general consensus is that supportive housing and individualized care would go a long way in solving the problem of persistent homelessness, there are also deep-rooted systemic issues which need to be addressed.

And for the population relying on emergency shelters for a place to sleep in the dead of winter, the sooner, the better.

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Beyond the big glass doors of Bethany Evangelical it is
-9 C and snowing.

Inside, a 36-year-old man sits alone at a table near the back of the gym. The food on his plate is separated into three neat piles, none of them touching the others. He says it’s the way he’s always eaten.

The man’s name is Nick, and he’s been homeless on and off for the past four years.

He doesn’t speak much, but when he does his voice is loud and clear. His face is covered in patches of dark brown stubble, his blue eyes clear and alert. He’s dressed in a pair of blue jeans, a green-and-black flannel shirt and a black toque which is folded up above his ears.

Nick’s story is both typical and unique. About five years ago he lost his job of seven years with a local manufacturing company. When he couldn’t find another job and his dwindling chequing account reached the red, he was evicted from his one-bedroom apartment.

At first he crashed on friends’ couches, but eventually considered himself a burden. He began sleeping in stairwells and secluded areas of local parks and eating at the Kitchener soup kitchen and other community service centres. He can still recall the first time he woke up to someone trying to steal his backpack from beneath his head and the first time he was jumped for what few belongings he owned.

Nick, who doesn’t drink alcohol or use drugs and has never been diagnosed with a mental illness, slowly began giving up on his search for a job. He began wandering the streets and spending hours at a time at the local libraries.

He applied for OW, and when he began receiving the measly cheques – about $570 per month – decided the money would go further if he didn’t have to pay rent. He kept living on the streets and says he finally accepted the fact that he didn’t have a home to call his own and possibly never would.

“Some homeless people talk about how it’s freedom,” Nick says between impossibly long pauses. “But I don’t think this is freedom. You’re locked in the same thing all the time.

“Freedom is when you can decide what you’re going to have for supper and what you’re going to do tonight, whether you’re staying home, going out, watching TV, reading a book, whatever you want. That sort of freedom is what I miss more than anything.”

After another long pause and a few bites of roast beef he says he’s tired. The days seem to be getting longer, he says. And harder.

“It’s emotionally draining, more than anything. You don’t know what’s around the corner, you don’t know what’s gonna happen next. And you don’t know whether or not you wanna know.”

He rises from his chair, walks over to the nearest garbage can, where he scrapes the remains of his plate into a black plastic bag.

It’s time for bed, he says without looking up.

He returns his plate to the serving counter and walks across the dirty concrete floor of the gymnasium. He reaches the long steel divider in the centre of the room and pauses. Without turning back, he takes one final step and disappears.