After expanding the Emergency Shelter Program in the Region to meet capacity and winter overflow pressures, as well as health considerations over the COVID-19 pandemic, regional council now sit at a crossroads in determining the future of our shelter options for those experiencing homelessness in Waterloo Region.
With pandemic support funding from the federal government's Reaching Home initiative and the provincial government's Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative and Social Services Relief Fund, service providers in the region like The House of Friendship, Y-W Kitchener Waterloo and The Working Centre were able to provide expanded capacity, innovative solutions to address chronic homelessness and private or semi-private rooms to keep participants and staff safe from the concerns of COVID-19 - but with that funding set to expire in March of 2022, the region now faces a funding shortfall of $6.6M in the homelessness program covering April to December of next year.
Unanimously endorsed by council, staff recommendations will see the region take action to "respond to the need for an increase in an emergency shelter funding" by reaching out to the provincial government for an increase in funding for specific safe sheltering options, as well as a connection to housing supports and people experiencing homelessness. Without sustainable funding, however, emergency shelter providers will be working with regional staff and community partners to wind down COVID-related operations while "considering funding constraints and planning for critical services that need to continue."
Speaking during Tuesday's Special Council meeting was John Neufeld, the executive director of the House of Friendship. Emphasizing the importance of finding further funding to maintain current service levels, Neufeld noted that a winding down of COVID-related operations creates the risk of going back to "old solutions for new problems" - as he noted that rates of chronic homelessness continue to increase since the beginning of the pandemic.
"... let's be clear, that was a growing problem since 2017 - the pandemic just highlighted it," said Neufeld. "Actually, the pandemic was a gift in the sense that it allowed us to try new things and to innovate. With emergency funding, we were able to provide 24/7 care and integrate healthcare into some of our shelter settings."
According to Neufeld, that temporary funding led to positive results for the House of Friendship, with a "record number" of clients being housed, very few returning for service, and a steep decline in the number of in-shelter overdoses. Neufeld said that the services shelters provide to the community have "changed dramatically" in the last decade, as he called upon his experience in noting that ten years ago the facilities he worked in would often have empty beds, at time taking care of "only 35 to 40 residents."
"Shelters used to be a place where we'd provide a mat and a meal. With some care and support, the majority of folks were able to move on with their lives," said Neufeld. "Now, since 2017, it's just assumed there will be regular overdoses, and staff are called upon regularly to hopefully reverse overdoses. Participants dying has become a normalized occurrence."
Sharing his experience and that of workers in the system, Neufeld argued that it's inaccurate to call the work "shelter" anymore, arguing shelter workers now function more like first responders, and emergency shelters more akin to "complex care facilities" for individuals struggling with extreme mental health and addictions issues.
"We're mini-hospitals without hospital funding," said Neufeld. "The challenges were growing well before the pandemic, and will continue to grow as our community continues to grow rapidly."
In addition to the challenges facing residents, Neufeld also spoke to the experience of those who have "dedicated themselves to walk with these individuals", arguing they've taken "extra heroic" measures to keep people safe, with some "literally saving countless lives," with the work taking an extreme toll.
"You're never the same after you witness someone overdosing or dying. Imagine having to experience that over and over again. We cannot go back to the way we used to do things. We cannot simply provide a mat and a meal and hope that magically, people will get better and housed. They will get worse, and will not get the appropriate housing needed."
According to Region of Waterloo staff, the region's Emergency Shelter Program supported just over 1,200 unique individuals between January and September of 2021 - with an average of 256 individuals accessing shelter each night. In that same time, 231 households were reportedly supported into permanent housing, 118 of which were experiencing chronic homelessness. While there continues to be a need for more spaces and shelter programs, particularly over the winter months, the region continues to work in providing permanent affordable and supportive homes for those experiencing homelessness through its Building Better Futures goal of 2,500 homes over five years.
Currently, there are over 500 new affordable homes in development - 150 of which are designated as supportive homes to end chronic homelessness.
"We're grateful the region has embraced the housing first approach. An effective shelter system actually enhances the housing first model - imagine a hospital without an emergency department? You come in, you're wandering and try to find out where to go. You have a broken arm, and you end up in the maternity ward," said Neufeld. "That's how the old model operated for years; you come into a shelter and we quickly get you into any kind of housing we could find."
"In a short period of time, the person would return to the shelter because of a housing breakdown."
With individuals now receiving adequate assessment and medical, mental health and addiction support thanks to that temporary support funding, Neufeld argues the region is able to better understand the type of housing suited for every individual, ensuring at least some form of housing stability.
"There's no silver bullet, and what we're struggling with in Waterloo Region is not unique to us. What's unique is as shelter providers, we've innovated and tried new approaches during the pandemic. Now that we've seen the results, we realize we can't go back. Let's not try old solutions to new problems."
Staff from the Region of Waterloo have since been directed to reach out to local MPPs and MPs in their appeal for further financial support to continue providing current levels of service in the emergency shelter system locally, as well as upper levels of government including the office of Premier Doug Ford and the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark. The region has also shared its report on the implications of the multi-million dollar funding shortfall with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.