Local programs offer support to people experiencing homelessness during the holidays

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Photo by Darien Funk

December is associated with festive cheer, but for some, the holiday spirit is hard to feel. More than 1000 people in Waterloo are experiencing homelessness, with 412 living on the street, in their cars, or similar conditions. 

“It’s a mixed bag of people on the street,” Gail Gilbert, executive director at Supportive Housing of Waterloo said. “Some people are illiterate, others have PhDs. Not all of them have mental illnesses or addictions, some just lack money and family support.” 

Supportive Housing of Waterloo currently has three properties on Erb Street, each for a different purpose. Their main building at 362 Erb provides housing for people directly from the streets and is staffed around the clock. Tenants at this building have long histories of homelessness, regularly combined with substance use disorders.  

Their newest addition, “Mike’s Building” at 402 Erb, is for tenants who can live more independently. Meanwhile, the Supportive Housing of Waterloo building at 144 Erb houses seniors who had been living on the street. 

“We help the homeless figure out how to stabilize their lives, whatever that may look like,” Gilbert said. “It could be by helping them reconnect with family, get income benefits, or go back to school.” 

As far as the holiday season goes, there’s a varied impact on what resources are available for people experiencing homelessness. “There’s more community giving,” Gilbert said. “But typically, a lot of services close over the holidays and have been cut down with COVID-19, so it can be a much harder time for people who are marginalized.” 

Even so, volunteers are welcome at local programs. The “Out of the Cold” program, which offers shelter, meals and hospitality for the homeless, runs at several churches in Waterloo. As well, the region’s House of Friendship organization delivers food to those in need. 

Gilbert encouraged students to find local community groups where they can volunteer and sign up sooner rather than later. Supportive Housing of Waterloo also takes in student volunteers to create gift parcels for the homeless, which are especially useful in the winter. 

“It can be a couple pairs of thermal socks and a Tim [Hortons] gift card,” Gilbert added. “Definitely hats and gloves are key because it gets very cold out there. I usually throw in a bar of soap and some tampons for the women.” 

Portable, light items are most ideal, whether it’s small hair brushes, t-shirts, hotel shampoos, or underwear. 

“So often we watch people and our inner critic judges them, but when we think about their reality, we realize they’re forced to cope with very difficult circumstances,” Gilbert said. “We can look at people living on the street and step around them or avoid eye contact, but we should talk to them.” 

As much as the holiday season is about joy, it’s also about sharing that joy with the people who need it most — and it’s up to us to do so.


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