On Nov. 30 House of Friendship temporarily closed the doors to its shelter for the first time in its 82-year history.
In a statement released Nov. 5, House of Friendship said they had found a new location for the shelter in the fall, but they were unable to secure the capital required from funders in time for the Nov. 30 deadline.
John Neufeld, executive director of House of Friendship, said the closure speaks to an increasing need for shelter care within our community that existed long before the pandemic..
“We still view ourselves as cute little Waterloo Region. But we’re in the same sentence for some factors of San [Francisco], Vancouver [and] Toronto, and we’ve gotten there very quickly,” he said.“With those realities, you’re going to have issues of homelessness also exploding.”
The need for shelter programs in the region has indeed increased since 2017. The 2021 Point in time count findings released by the Region of Waterloo revealed that 1,085 folks were experiencing some level of homelessness on Sept. 21 of this year.
Of those, 609 people responded to a survey in which 75 per cent reported experiencing homelessness for longer than six months. The respondents cited low income and high rental costs as two of the largest challenges to securing safe permanent housing. Other challenges cited included discrimination, poor housing conditions, mental health issues, a criminal history, family breakdown/conflict and physical health issues, or accessibility.
In addition to the economic factors, our region is facing a fatal opioid crisis that Neufeld referred to as a “poisoning crisis.”
There are many different reasons folks experience homelessness and Neufeld said that there is no solution that works for everyone. He applauded the regional organizations for out-of-the-box thinking, referencing A Better Tent City, The Working Centre and OneRoof for their innovative approaches to shelter care.
“I think what we’re trying to do different in Waterloo Region through the shelter care model is to say, ‘let’s not just provide a roof over someone’s head…But let’s actually integrate healthcare, let’s actually get in those facilities, the pieces that will address their underlying issues of their homelessness’,”he said.
For now, the residents impacted by the Nov. 30 closure have been moved to temporary housing. House of Friendship continues to work closely with government funders to secure a new location, hopefully by February 2022.
Unfortunately, shelter programs are not always welcomed to the community with open arms. When A Better Tent City moved to their temporary location in Huron Park in June, neighbours voiced their concerns and frustrations online.
“It’s uncomfortable to think about for those of us who are fortunate to have a house or have that security, that a lot of people don’t. When they don’t, there’s some weird things that happen in the community. Like crime and theft and yet, it’s not comfortable. But what are we expecting when more and more people are being pushed to the fringes,” Neufeld said.
Neufeld said he hopes the community can be drawn into the discussion more going forward.
“Let’s just invite the neighbours in, say, here’s what we’re doing. Here’s the challenge, things go sideways, call us, talk to us…that’s what I’m trying to push for,” he said. “It’s these larger economic forces that are bigger than any of us, and we’re just trying to address some of it.”
Waterloo Region’s 2021 Vital Signs Report, released by the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation listed possible solutions to tackle affordable housing in the region, including lowering energy costs in rental units, investing in affordable housing initiatives, adding a tiny home or secondary suite to properties and advocating for more green spaces and access to transportation in lower income neighbourhoods around higher density areas.
Neufeld said there are lots of things we can be doing as a community to help. He recommended increasing your awareness by educating yourself around what’s happening in the community, advocating for portable and supportive housing in the region and getting involved by donating or volunteering with shelter providers if you’re able to.
“I’ve come to really appreciate understanding the bigger picture,” he said.
“It just fascinates me that every time I see these economic charts, and then I look at how many people …we fed in our food and program, how many people are homeless, like, there’s direct correlations between them. And they are connected, they do matter. They have any impact,” Neufeld said.
Care Lucas is Executive Director of WLU Student Publications, and Publisher of TCE. You may have bumped into her at Steel Rails over the years, or in one of the Region’s many magical record stores where she regularly combs through stacks of vinyl. At home she spends time building puzzles with her son Atticus, cat Garfunkel and chinese crested dogs Star and Dookie.