The Pressing Need for More Shelters in KW

A thin wall separates my apartment from the lobby of my building. It might as well be a bedsheet hanging from the ceiling. I can hear foot traffic all day, on weekends, and all night. It took me about a month before I was jaded enough to tune it out. There is an electrical outlet in the lobby. No one seems to take advantage of it except for a man, probably in his mid-20’s, who sometimes uses my lobby as a place to crash. I can hear him through the wall some evenings if I listen. Sometimes he talks, other times he plays the same ‘80s hair metal song on his iPod that charges in the wall. When I pass him in the morning, we exchange quick and shallow pleasantries, and I head to work. In my eyes, wherever he chooses to lay his head is his business.

This anecdote isn’t an uncommon one. People experiencing homelessness in the Region often use lobbies as a warm place to sleep. While my new neighbour’s presence doesn’t affect or bother me, there are several residents, landlords or business owners who, for reasons of their own, make it known that a lobby isn’t a welcomed spot for people to crash.

On Feb. 1, the Waterloo Region opened a temporary overflow shelter for those experiencing homelessness at St. Matthews Church in downtown Kitchener. Through the House of Friendship, the large space provides up to 70 beds when all other shelters in the Region become full. For adult shelters, November saw an average overflow of 44 people per night. December with 57. While the purpose of the overflow space has become obvious, the systemic issue of homelessness is still vast and conflicted.

“People do not come into homelessness because it’s cold outside,” director of Housing Services for House of Friendship, Christine Stevanus said. “They access our services more frequently when it’s cold outside.”

When people need a bed, HOF staff always inquire where the individual or family are coming from, their most recent housing situation and what brought them to that point. According to Stevanus, an eviction, a relationship breakup or loss of job are common answers.

But Stevanus is quick to remind us of the purpose of these spaces. “Being in a shelter is an emergency,” she said. “This is not a long term answer.”

Director of Housing at the Waterloo Region, Deb Schlichter, regards all beds within the “shelter system” as emergency beds, with a mixture of 245 in six shelters for either youth, families, or adults. After all of these beds are filled, St. Matthews then becomes the destination. With an increase in adult males recently requiring these beds, the Region and HOF will be surveying these men to get answers as it seems to be more of a local issue.

“When we start to look across Ontario, not every community is experiencing the same thing,” Schlichter said.

So what are Waterloo Region’s specific issues when it comes to homelessness? That’s a loaded question that will take time and resources to answer. It’s safe to say that this isn’t an issue of just space or available beds, but offering up more space in the time being is a good start to tackling a larger issue.