Over the last year, the pre-existing problem of homelessness in Waterloo Region was both highlighted and exasperated by the pandemic. The services normally in place to address this crisis also faced more difficulties with COVID-19 prevention measures, funding, and staffing issues. At the same time, normal efforts of fundraising and raising awareness were interrupted.
Among such efforts was the annual Hockey Helps the Homeless (HHTH) tournament which has been a part of the region since 2014. Although the 2020 tournament was cancelled, the organization went online and raised $322,000 in a five-month campaign that wrapped on Mar. 31.
This year, instead of the traditional hockey game, HHTH had prizes for volunteers that raised set amounts of money. They also began selling lawn signs, an initiative which raised $13,000.
“…[The] cost of providing a shelter bed, literally went up by about 40 per cent from previous years because of the need to be able to provide single room residences for these folks,” Rob Way, HHTH committee chair and CEO of Swiftspace, said.
“So for us, it was a challenge. We knew we had to change how we fundraise, but we also knew our charity partners were faced with increased difficulty and providing the homeless with support in the community,” he said.
Way understood the businesses that are normally part of HHTH tournaments may face financial difficulties, so his company also matched donations up to $100,000.
“…[E]ven though we didn’t have an event, pretty well 100 per cent of our sponsors engaged again…they’re not doing it for visibility, or marketing or anything like that…they’re doing it to support the community. I thought that was really cool,” Way said.
New innovations were also important for this campaign. Customers purchasing lawn signs often donated extra money at the end of their purchase, increasing both funds and awareness in the community. In addition, more people were able to take part in the fundraising because teams were no longer limited to only hockey teams playing in the tournament.
Typically, there are 16 teams of 15 members each competing in the tournament; some years ago, Craig Herner, Waterloo Region vice-chair and media relations, created the 17th team for people who will not play hockey but would still like to fundraise. This year, there were many more people signing up for the 17th team, including some organizations that signed up their whole companies.
“I came up with the 17th team concept. And I actually want to grow that, you know, get more non skating companies joining so we could gather more money for them,” Herner said.
HHTH contributes all funds raised to local charities, focusing on services that provide emergency beds; in Waterloo Region, these are House of Friendship, oneROOF Youth Services, Y-W Kitchener-Waterloo, Lutherwood and Cambridge Shelter Corporation. Way said that, other than their focus, they trust the charity partners to use funds in the most effective way.
One thing that sets HHTH apart is the incorporation of charities that receive funds into the fundraising campaign. Elizabeth Clarke, CEO of YW Kitchener-Waterloo, said what seemed like just another event to raise a few dollars has become a major part of the charities’ funding structures.
“[HHTH] is a little different than a lot of other sort of third party fundraisers in that the charity recipients are members of the organising committee as well. So we work with the volunteers and we then we reap the benefits,” Clarke said.
“[We thought] it’ll be fun, but we really had no idea of the scope of it and how big it was going to get. And that’s really because it’s really because of the committee. These events happen across Canada, but Waterloo Region is, year after year, [at] the top in terms of in terms of what they’re able to bring in for their charities,” she said.
Along with fundraising, service delivery has changed considerably over the pandemic. From emergency shelter to mental health and addictions care to employment services, all factions had to adapt to new circumstances. These changes have been both beneficial and detrimental.
For example, before the pandemic, shelters would close during the day time. However, with stay-at-home and lockdown measures, people no longer had places to go during the day and many shelters had to shift to 24-hour services. This led to additional costs related to staffing, cleaning and general maintenance of the shelters, among other things.
“[S]helters need to do additional things now to make the spaces more appropriate for dealing with a pandemic…prior to the pandemic [shelters would] close for the daytime hours, and the expectation was that people in the shelters would go out into the community to look for housing or go to their appointments,” Clarke said. “When [COVID-19] hit, that just wasn’t a possibility anymore, you couldn’t send people out when there was nothing opening for them and nowhere for them to go.”
“We also saw greater demand in terms of numbers, but also…so many services were closed, or either not providing services or providing them virtually…[and so may people in need were cut off that] shelters had to start either providing those those supports directly or coping with people who are missing supports that they need it,” she said.
Many shelters began moving people into hotels, a strategy that was widely touted for its benefits. However, increased isolation also somewhat increased chances of overdosing for people who use substances since they had no one around them to keep an eye on them. In 2020, the region experienced the highest number of overdose deaths since 2017.
Clarke said these possibilities need to be balanced in a way that ensures safety of shelter uses while maintaining their dignity and privacy.
“[B]efore, we used to have mats on the floor three feet apart…And I think that there’s certainly a feeling that we don’t want to go back to people sleeping on mats on the floor…but maybe individual bedrooms is not necessarily the best approach either,” Clarke said.
Clarke also said attitudes toward people without homes are changing in the region, especially as there is more awareness around homelessness. She said the money raised by HHTH is important, but their work with raising awareness is also invaluable.
“[M]ost volunteers work year round, not just on a committee, but year round, around raising these issues and educating around these issues…they’re doing this engagement work, which is, it’s very important to have these issues elevated, and, and to have the general public become more aware of them, because it makes it easier for governments to support the issues when there’s a lot of public interest in them,” Clarke said.
“I think that the work [HHTH] does in terms of educating the community around homelessness is just as important as the money that they bring in,” she said.
In addition to moving away from a large room with mats on the floor, Clarke said they would move toward finding the people that do not access the shelters for whatever reason. As most shelter users are white men, most services tend to be tailored for them; and traditionally, services are offered only to people that come looking for them.
Clarke said the shelters would address these gaps by doing their research and going into the community to see who is in need and of what.
The HHTH team has also learned lessons from the pandemic. They will continue their lawn sign campaign post-pandemic and increase involvement of non-hockey players.
As volunteers normally get the opportunity to play with an ex-Olympian or NHL player on their team, Way said players who did not get ice time in the last campaign will hopefully have the opportunity in the coming winter.