Janine Prew
CONTRIBUTOR

Last year there were approximately 3,500 different men, women and children who used the Region’s formal overnight shelters or the church-run Out of the Cold (OOTC) shelters. Some of these people had temporary homelessness situations, and some were more long term. The disheartening reality of that statistic is that it doesn’t account for the people who don’t actually use the shelters.

The Region of Waterloo is attempting to rectify that with a new comprehensive and more personal approach.

The STEP Home Program involves 12 separate but interrelated programs designed to end and prevent persistent homelessness.

Included under STEP Home is the 20,000 Homes Campaign, a nationwide attempt to permanently house Canada’s most vulnerable individuals. Inspired by the successful 100,000 Homes Campaign in the US, the program has volunteers deliberately going out onto the streets, talking to the homeless, assessing their needs, and tracking individual progress towards a personalized solution.

“It involves conducting a short health and housing survey with all people experiencing homelessness who are willing to participate, including those who are staying in shelters and on the street, along with others identified through STEP Home.” said Van Vilaysinh, Manager of Housing Stability for Waterloo Region.

“Teams composed of housing stability services staff and volunteers will systematically canvas the community and complete the surveys.”

“If they get the volunteers they need I think they can reach almost everybody that they’re trying to reach, but not absolutely everybody,” said Elizabeth Clarke, CEO of the local YWCA, which is hosting a temporary shelter this winter.

“There are people who aren’t served by the formal shelters and they aren’t served by Out of the Cold’s either — they’re sleeping in tents or on benches.

“The Region is making an effort to reach out to those people and understand what it is that they need because what we’re delivering isn’t it.”

The Out of the Cold program has recently experienced a domino effect of shelter closures but it was very successful for 15 years as an option for anyone experiencing homelessness. Fifteen years ago the Region had less funding, space was an issue and people were being turned away from the formal shelters, so the churches created OOTC to respond to that issue.

The problem is that it was never meant to be a long-term solution and it ended up becoming the main system many people were using.

“One of the Out of the Cold coordinators said to me that she realized she’d been seeing the same people for 10 years,” said Clarke. “And she felt there must be something better — we’re not helping them move to something better.”

The good news is that over the years the Region was able to develop a better approach to helping people experiencing homelessness, but still needed to reach out to those people who weren’t using the programs at all.

“We’re not going to be able to do a better job until we understand who they are and what it is that they want,” said Clarke.

Clarke believes that in addition to reaching the people who are experiencing homelessness outside of the system, the two main things this new program will achieve are raising community awareness of the situation, and helping the Region with its community services planning.

“We do have an advantage right now because of everything that is happening with the Out of the Cold. We have a community that’s really engaged in the issue in a way that I haven’t seen in 15 years.”