Photograph of the Victoria Street encampment in Kitchener, Ontario. A group of tents sit precariously together behind a traffic sign that reads "No Exit".
KATARINA WEX PHOTO

AN OVERVIEW OF HOMELESSNESS IN WATERLOO REGION

Homelessness in Waterloo Region has exploded in recent years. If you do not personally know someone who has experienced homelessness, you likely have seen more folks in our city centres living rough on the streets.  

Rent has rapidly increased, much higher than general inflation, with average listed market rents in Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo now over $2000 per month for a one-room apartment. Homelessness in Waterloo Region is growing by 28 per cent per year, according to Waterloo Region’s Plan to End Chronic Homelessness (PECH) 2024 report. At least 1,700 people were without homes in July 2023, with 579 chronically homeless (homeless for at least six months in the past year or at least 1.5 years in the past three).  

Many on the ground only expect the crisis to get worse.  

In the winter, shelters are often over capacity or not compatible with a person’s specific needs. If people try to sleep on the streets, police will be called to remove them from most locations. Those in emergency shelters regularly find themselves struggling with the shelter schedules and punitory rules, or even robbed, harassed, or assaulted when staying in packed rooms of desperate people. Support workers regularly burn out and can be on and off the streets themselves.  

A housing crisis decades in the making  

Up until the 1980s, the Canadian government invested heavily in public and co-op housing, resulting in basic housing for all segments of society. After the 1980s, weakening labour unions and growing corporate power allowed Liberals and Conservatives to gut non-market forms of housing and weaken rental regulations while also reducing oversight of housing. This led to increasing financialization of housing—where housing functions as an investment vehicle, both for landlords and regular homeowners.  

Housing, and financial assets generally, have become the most profitable investments in our capitalist economy, leading to further investment and relative (per person) de-investment in the real economy. The financialization of housing has driven up not only housing prices but also construction costs while slowing real (non-financial) economic growth.  

The poorest and most vulnerable are the most impacted  

We see the effects of this here in our region. Waitlists for community housing can reach up to 10 years, due to lack of availability. Rents have exploded, with especially large increases in housing prices in Waterloo Region due to additional demand from the concentration of tech and higher education.  

The living wage in Waterloo Region now surpasses minimum wage, to an estimated $20.90/hour. The monthly disability payment shrank relative to inflation for the past three decades, with recipients only receiving $1300 monthly. Ontario Works recipients only receive $800 monthly ($400 monthly if homeless). Similar issues exist for the public pension system, with retirees without pension plans increasingly unable to afford rent, due to decades of shifts to private pension plans. Because of this, seniors are a rapidly growing proportion of the homeless population.  

The cause of homelessness with this context is obvious: most unhoused people simply cannot afford housing and lack necessary supports to get back on their feet. What is needed are alternatives to market housing and adequate resourcing for a spectrum of supports. The recently released Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, put out by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region, recommends these be delivered to the unhoused with a housing-first approach, where some form of housing is guaranteed along with needed supports, so that people have the stability needed to work on their life and transition to stable long-term housing.   

Systems preventing change  

Political hot potato has resulted in all levels of government working to pass responsibility on the housing and homelessness crisis to each other or to the private sector to solve. Constant appeals to corporate and financial interests for solutions have additionally reduced the scope of imagination for public solutions.  

Charities often find themselves overwhelmed and dependent while trying to meet essentials needs or resolve issues outsourced by governments, often receiving irregular or insufficient government funding. They compete with each other for grants and donations, resulting in the perverse incentive to stretch every last dollar. This has led some local housing activists to refer to these agencies as “poverty pimps”, as their existence depends on people’s poverty for their business model. Charities can even prevent change, as they recruit many of the most motivated change-makers in the community to do specific tasks outside their control while also make these workers dependent on these charities for their income. These workers lose the ability to speak out on failures of the systems in place to address homelessness, as that may offend their employer or charity donors and therefore risk losing their job.  

Local changemakers  

Despite the immense challenges facing us, local groups are working to organize for change.  

The local homeless encampment at 100 Victoria St. N. became a legal place for homeless community members to camp thanks the efforts of local activists and Shannon Down, executive director of Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, who represented several encampment residents in court. Justice Valente ruled the Region cannot evict residents from Region-owned land if they have nowhere else to go, as it violates residents’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.   

Local activist group, FightbackKW works to prototype cheaper community-built housing and preventing possible illegal removal of homeless folks at the site. Waterloo Region ACORN brings low-moderate income people together to fight for changes to housing and to organize tenants to prevent their landlords from raising their rents or evicting them.  

Union Cooperative, an experimental community-member-owned cooperative, works to buy up and preserve affordable housing and empower tenants by making them equal members. Waterloo Region Yes in My Backyard and the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region are additional local organizations working on issues of housing and homelessness.  

In lieu of a real national housing plan, addressing the housing and homelessness crisis will require significant tenants and community organizing, with struggle along class lines through groups like these.