‘It’s certainly not a matter of choice’

Homelessness and urban poverty stand as key social issues in cities across Canada and it is a reality that has not escaped Waterloo region. Organizations providing immediate shelter, food and counselling stand at the front lines of this fight and seek not only to address the needs of those in crisis, but the misconceptions and myths which continue to be attached to people facing homelessness.

“A person experiencing homelessness is still a whole person aside from the fact they’re experiencing homelessness,” noted Ron Flaming, program director of residential services for House of Friendship, a Christian social outreach organization which has operated in the Waterloo region since 1939. “For me, how I learned that was just meeting people and realizing the common interests that we had.”

Flaming emphasized that the homeless demographic is a diverse and complex population. “If there are 50 people in the shelter for the night, there are 50 different stories and 100 different reasons why people are there,” he said.
Homeless individuals can generally be thought of as belonging to three categories. “We call it one-time homelessness, episodic homelessness and persistent homelessness” said Flaming.

“One-time homelessness is when somebody, through some kind of circumstance, finds themselves without a place to live. It might be their apartment burned out, or they lost their job and can’t pay rent,” he explained. Episodic homelessness is experienced, as Flaming explained, by individuals who are “in a situation where they become homeless every once in a while.”

In contrast, the persistent homeless are individuals for which homelessness has become a permanent situation. “Many people would have the impression that people staying in the shelter are chronically homeless but that isn’t the case,” he clarified. “Last year, 76 per cent of the people stayed in the shelter only once or twice throughout the entire year. Only 24 per cent of the people were here three or more times.”

Speaking to the improvements the region has made in providing support to people in any of these situations, Trudy Beaulne, executive director of the social planning council of Kitchener-Waterloo, said, “Certainly a really significant [initiative] very recently is the opening of SHOW (Supportive Housing of Waterloo), which has provided 30 units to get people off the street.”

Despite the push for more housing initiatives, cultural attitudes remain incredibly important and influential in altering the situation for people experiencing homelessness. “When people treat you like you’re some kind of creature or non-human it’s really, really debilitating,” said Beaulne.

It is a sentiment echoed by Roberta Hickey, a 12-year volunteer with Out of the Cold, a program that provides overnight housing and meals for the homeless at churches throughout the region. “Some think that people choose homelessness. If you talk to some people and hear their stories, it’s certainly not a matter of choice,” she said, while noting the significant number of working homeless for which she provides wake-up calls.

Organizations including House of Friendship and Out of the Cold rely heavily on cooperation with other non-profit organizations in the region as well as community involvement.

“It was many years ago that the federal government reduced the amount of money for homelessness initiatives and really that’s what’s needed,” Hickey said. “You can have all the great ideas in the world but if you don’t have funding it’s not going to happen.”

“There are various ways that people can contribute by volunteering at Out of the Cold or other places or by getting informed,” Beaulne expressed, including communicating with all levels of government to shine light on the issue.

That demand for active support was conveyed by Flaming who explained that new volunteers are always welcome and also emphasized the need for donations in the form of seasonal clothing and toiletries.

“There’s been a lot of work done in Waterloo Region and it’s shown and it’s had an impact but it certainly hasn’t eliminated the problem,” Beaulne added.

–With files from Alanna Wallace

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