November 23, 2020

Banner photo credit: Godong \ UIG

Nadine Green, a former convenience store owner in downtown Kitchener who is known for giving shelter to homeless people sleeping across the street, got evicted by the city on Jan. 21 due to numerous complaints about people loitering and throwing garbage and rocks at delivery trucks.

“I think maybe because there were a lot of homeless people in that area and downtown is changing, so maybe that’s why (they forced her out). They just wanted to change,” Green, 51, said while sipping a hot squash soup at the Coffee Culture on King Street in downtown Kitchener.

Even though her business has been shuttered, that hasn’t stopped her from doing her part for the most vulnerable.

“What I do now is go to the soup kitchen and look for the homeless who need my help,” said Green.

“I think God leads me to where the people need me.”

Green is an immigrant from Jamaica and was homeless when she first came to Canada which was a big motivator for her to open up her convenience store to the homeless.

She thinks the City of Kitchener would have had a better chance of meeting their goal of ending chronic homelessness by the end of the year if they had consulted her.

“They probably could have come to me and tried to work something out and do it in a different way, but I guess they just did it how they did it,” she said.

According to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness‘s Built for Zero Canada website, there were 339 people experiencing homelessness in 2014.

Based on a count on a night in April 2018, 264 individuals and families reported being homeless. “I think this is good news. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have work to do,” said Deb Schlichter, the region’s director of housing.

People in a local shelter were asked about the level of support they need and 43 per cent said they needed a high level of support.

“I’m not necessarily seeing an increase in numbers, but we’re certainly seeing an increase in the severity of need in what we call the acuteness. Their acuity needs are higher and much of that is related to the fact that they have complex issues,” said Sandy Dietrich-Bell, the CEO of OneROOF Youth Services, the only youth-specific homeless shelter in Kitchener-Waterloo.                                            

“Gone are the days where someone has just had a fight with mom and dad and they just need a temporary place to stay. Most of the youth who we’re seeing have very complex issues: lots of mental health (problems), drug addiction, violence and abuse in their history. Our numbers are remaining steady, but the issues are definitely a lot more difficult to manage.” 

The region’s All In Campaign, which was launched in November 2018, was an ambitious one, with the aim of ending homelessness by 2020. It was one of the first communities in Canada to try and achieve this. However, according to a story on cbc.ca, it failed because the problems the region is facing are too great. People coming into homeless shelters on average have been staying for longer periods of time and they have more complex needs.

During the winter of 2018/2019, there were 107,340 bed nights, which is a sizable increase from 2017/2018 when there were only 88,511 bed nights. This shows that chronic homelessness is on the rise in Waterloo Region.                                                                                                   

Wait lists for community housing have also been getting longer with the average wait time being 7.9 years. There are also few affordable units available in the private market.

“When there’s no affordable housing in the community and a landlord has many folks vying for the same apartment, it’s not likely that they’re going to opt to give it to a young person who’s facing barriers and is homeless. There’s also, and has been for many, many years, a gap in the availability of substance abuse programs and timely mental health programs,” Dietrich-Bell said.

The goal at OneROOF is to not generalize and judge the people who come into their shelter.

“Here at OneROOF, we never use terms like ‘homeless youth’ or ‘drug addict’ — we always put the youth first. So, we’ll say ‘youth experiencing homelessness’ or ‘youth who has an addiction’ because we want people, by the virtue of the way we speak, to see the human beings first and their situations second,” she said.

Nonprofits like OneROOF don’t get any government funding so they look to the public for donations.

“We don’t receive any provincial or federal funding, so we rely on the community and grant writing and each year we have to start over and hope that we continue to garner the support,” she said.

“There’s lots of ways to get involved either monetarily (or) by (the) giving of your time and space.”

A lot of social services in the region are not knowledgeable enough to deal with the complex problems that more and more homeless people have. Landlords also might not be willing to house people who struggle with mental health and addiction problems.

“That’s really causing us to acknowledge that we may need to rethink some of our strategies and recognize that these numbers are not just a glitch but something that we’re going to be dealing with for the foreseeable future,” said regional councillor Elizabeth Clarke in the cbc.ca article.

Waterloo Region is working on ways to decrease the use of emergency shelters by including hotlines that inform people about other places they can go, with shelter beds being the last resort. One of the alternatives is for those facing eviction. Suggestions are given based on where a person lives, their age and whether or not it’s one person or a family that needs help. Numbers for these hotlines were made available on the region’s website.

The region has also created a program to streamline all housing waitlists into one list called PATHS (Prioritized Access to Housing Supports). The list is supposed to prioritize the people with the highest need for housing. From April 1, 2018 to May 31, 2019, 355 people have been able to get housing through PATHS.

The region isn’t just helping people who need housing find it, they’re also helping people who are falling behind on rent payments and are at risk of being evicted. In 2018, the region spent $496,804 in rent payments.

Clarke knows how controversial this decision is to some people, but thinks that this is the cheaper option compared to letting a tenant get evicted and have them use a shelter or hotel. The cost of having someone stay at a shelter costs the regional government between $70 and $90 a night. “It’s not a cheap proposition to keep people in the shelters,” she told the CBC.

When shelters are full, the region has to put people in motels, which is even more expensive for the government. People living in motels also don’t get the same supports they’d get if they were in a shelter.

People who are homeless have a higher chance of facing many types of threats, one of them being sexual assault.

 “Our program is one of 35 centres across the province, so we’re a part of the sexual assault domestic violence network and our program is unique in that we have 12 social workers (and) 12 nurses who respond as a team to both St. Mary’s hospital and Cambridge (Memorial),” said Juila Manuel, director of the Waterloo Region Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Centre.

She said there is a correlation between sexual assault and homelessness. “We have women who come out of relationships who are now saying, ‘I don’t have anywhere to go now, because it was his home’ or ‘her home’ and ‘now I can’t go back there,’ or ‘they’ve kicked me out,’” Manuel said.

Wilfrid Laurier University student Emily Waitson lived in downtown Kitchener for 14 years, during which time she became familiar with homeless people and the services nearby that helped them. She thinks that the city’s effort to beautify the downtown core neglects the homeless people who live there.

“Despite all of the unique localities this promising region has to offer, there is a prevalent problem connected to K-W and cities like it in southern Ontario that is difficult to ignore — people experiencing homelessness,” said Waitson.

“We shouldn’t be gentrifying our humble roots so that the people who need the social services provided by the tirelessly good-doing shelters and assistance programs in the area are pushed to the outer edges for the sake of appearances and convenience.”

She saw a lot of people in downtown Kitchener be judgmental towards homeless people in a subtle way.

“It is a common occurrence for me to see commuters giving a wide berth to someone who is asking for money,” she said. 

“Businessmen in suits distractedly step over people sleeping on the sidewalk, like they’re nothing more than litter.”

She said people think that the problem is exclusively with people on the street instead of putting any responsibility on the city for not putting enough funding in programs that get people off the street.

Dietrich-Bell said, “We get into trouble when we start labelling people and seeing only the label. Our fears and our ignorance gets the better of us and then we treat them as less than human beings.”

Most of the services that help people who are experiencing homelessness are located in Kitchener, which leaves out big chunks of Waterloo and Cambridge.

“My hope is that we can continue building and improving this city so that the people who are experiencing homelessness and are less fortunate, yet equally deserving, can be given the same chance at a home to call their own,” said Waitson.

There are many different reasons why someone becomes homeless and the ways a person can go from being in a house to being homeless are not linear and fluid. However, there are some common things that are known to make people homeless.The site homelesshub.ca published a list of the top six reasons for why a person becomes homeless.

The reasons listed are structural factors, poverty, housing, system failures, personal circumstances and relationship problems, and domestic violence.

Structural factors include economic and societal problems that affect job opportunities for people. According to the Homeless Hub website “Key factors can include the lack of adequate income, access to affordable housing and health supports and/or the experience of discrimination.”

Major changes in the economy can make it hard for people to earn enough money to pay for housing and food, which is currently happening with the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

Poverty is the most obvious and direct way that a person can become homeless. “Poverty can mean a person is one illness, one accident, or one paycheque away from living on the streets,” Homeless Hub stated.

The third factor that causes homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. “The millions of Canadian families and individuals living in “core need” (paying more than 50 per cent of their income on housing) are at serious risk of homelessness, as are families and individuals spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing,” Homeless Hub said.

Discrimination based on race or sexual orientation is another factor that could make it harder for a person to access affordable housing.

The fourth factor is system failures. This is a general term for when other types of care fall apart for a person to the point where they have to access the “homelessness sector.”

“Examples of systems failures include difficult transitions from child welfare, inadequate discharge planning for people leaving hospitals, corrections and mental health and addictions facilities and a lack of support for immigrants and refugees,” the website stated.

The fifth factor involves personal circumstances. Examples of this are: “traumatic events (e.g. house fire or job loss), personal crisis (e.g. family break-up or domestic violence), mental health and addictions challenges (including brain injury and fetal alcohol syndrome), which can be both a cause and consequence of homelessness, and physical health problems or disabilities.”

The last factor on this list is domestic abuse. A Statistics Canada report from 2016 said that family violence affects 237 out of 100,000 people. “This is particularly an issue for youth and women, especially those with children. Women who experience violence and/or live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness,” said Homeless Hub. Young and elderly people who deal with sexual, physical or psychological abuse have a higher chance of experiencing homelessness.

Eleven years ago, five Canadian city councils took it upon themselves to address the connection between mental health and homelessness based on an experimental program called Housing First. Housing First started in New York City in 1992 and provided homeless people with fast access to housing that was combined with support that helped people deal with mental health and addiction issues.

Housing First was shown to be effective in decreasing homelessness in New York, but it wasn’t known if it could work in Canada. The homeless population in Canada is around 35,000 people. Canada’s version of Housing First was the At Home/Chez Soi Project (AHCS) which launched in 2009 in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton. This program was created to see if a Housing-First type of program could have the same success in Canada that it did in the U.S. The program was mostly led by academics which garnered some criticism due to the high amount of privilege they had over the people they were trying to help, which some argued would make it hard for them to understand some of the problems faced by those who are homeless. Others criticized the program’s budget of $110 million. Currently, the program has expanded to 70 cities across Canada and is seen as a success because it has moved 1,000 people into safe and affordable housing.

In the first five cities At Home tinkered with the mechanics of the American system to better reflect the local conditions of each city. The best example of this is At Home’s approach in Winnipeg that puts more focus on the city’s high population of Indigenous people, who deal with high amounts of poverty and addiction. “The Winnipeg model demonstrates that when communities use their existing skills and knowledge and combine that with a strong tool kit like At home/Chez Soi, they can help to address the needs of local populations and go a long way to curbing homelessness,” says the news site The Conversation.

Homelessness hasn’t been eradicated yet, but At Home has given cities the tools they need to address homelessness in a more effective way. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made the problems that homeless people face every day even more challenging, due to the fact that finding protective gear and a place to quarantine for a long period of time is hard to do for a person who’s living on the street. The pandemic has put many people into vulnerable positions with around one million Canadians applying for Employment Insurance. The fact that so many people are out of work will increase the rate of poverty and make the demand for shelters even higher than it already is. This is why Waterloo Region is expanding the number of available shelters into places that are currently closed during the pandemic like community centres and hotels. One of these new shelters will be a Radisson hotel.

“The region and the cities are taking it very seriously,” said Tonya Verburg, CEO of Ray of Hope, a Christian non-profit located on King Street in downtown Kitchener that offers services to the homeless such as hot meals. “If you go on the region’s website there’s a lot of information and updates on where they’ve built a washroom and warming spaces and we’re looking at capacity issues for people who are truly living rough out on the streets and we also have medical teams that we are ready to deploy out for people who are symptomatic. So there’s lots being done in the background,” said Verburg.

Ray of Hope is an essential service and just like any other essential service, they are implementing stringent rules to decrease the spread of COVID-19. “We’ve closed the dining room. So we’re only offering meals on a takeout basis. People are getting them through takeout and taking them where they can to eat the meals. We just keep reminding people we have hand sanitizer. If they need to use the washroom we bring them in one at a time. So this has been a bit of a staged process. At first, we just limited the number in. Then we moved the tables and now under advisement, we’ve just gone to takeout. We’re just doing the best that we can in this situation to ensure that people are staying safe and getting the correct information,” said Verburg. 

Ray of Hope has a Facebook page that has videos and pictures that show the services they are providing during the pandemic. One of the posts on this page that was posted on April 2 is a short video of a Ray of Hope volunteer named Grace from Woodside Bible Fellowship in Elmira. She’s a team lead who cooks the meals that Ray of Hope gives out.

“I came in last week to see what the new serving structure was like and I was very impressed with the system that has come up. It’s pretty low risk in terms of volunteers coming in. Our only contact is walking from our car into the building.

“After that, we’re preparing the meal as usual and instead of plating it we’re putting it in ‘to go’ containers and the staff here at Ray of Hope is serving it out the door to the guests,” she said. 


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