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Homelessness something of an invisible problem in region

If the word “homeless” causes you to conjure up an image of a grubby street person shuffling along and asking for spare change, you’re certainly not alone. The stereotypes of the panhandling bum and manic bag lady are pervasive in the media.

Those images from television and the movies shape our views of homelessness even though we see nothing like that in the townships, and very little of it in Kitchener or Waterloo. The problem is much more visible in larger cities.

Having grown up in Montreal, I saw plenty of panhandlers downtown. Forlorn-looking people, often in wheelchairs or exhibiting disabilities, were common sights in the Metro stations, often selling pencils or similar items.

Out west, you get a different kind of street scene. Along with vagrants and drug users in Vancouver, the streets are filled with neo-hippy kids, often accompanied by dogs, who spend their time mooching cash and living their version of the west coast lifestyle. The latter are particularly noticeable in Victoria, where the beautiful scenery, laidback atmosphere and milder weather prove as attractive to the homeless as they do to tourists.

Still, there are some elements of that to be found even here in Waterloo Region. Kitchener is the prime locale. When I lived in a downtown loft, there were the usual suspects to be spotted daily, including a small collection of buskers gathering enough change for the next drink and a couple of guys who carried on animated conversations while strolling the sidewalks … long before the ascension of Bluetooth devices.

Looking at the numbers, however, much of the homelessness is out of sight, much like what officials in Vancouver are trying to do prior to the Olympic Games, though not for the same reason.

We have nowhere near the same kind of problem, but the statistics are perhaps all the more startling because much of what goes on goes unseen.

Last year, a group called Out of the Cold, which provides the kind of drop-in food-and-shelter services we associate with street people, served 23,500 meals and provided shelter more than 10,600 times. And that was just from November to April, when OOTC operates from nine churches in Kitchener and Waterloo. The group, staffed by volunteers, provides services from a different location on a rotating schedule.

The timing, naturally, coincides with the cold weather, a time when the homeless need more help than might be available from standing shelters and year-round programs.

Shelters are the frontline of the homelessness issue. Other organizations come at the situation from different angles, most under the banner of the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG).

Just because the region is relatively affluent and has made a strong push for social housing, there’s still much work to be done, suggests HHUG’s Lynn Macaulay, who this week provided an update to Woolwich councillors.

While you won’t find people wandering up and down Arthur Street in Elmira or Woolwich Street in Breslau pushing a shopping cart, for instance, addressing the homelessness issue goes beyond the street-level symptoms. Of those on the streets, the most visible are those who suffer from mental illness. That situation requires special attention. Much of the homelessness, however, is directly linked to poverty: people lose their housing, and end up in a crisis situation.

Building affordable housing is part of the solution. So too is providing a living wage, enabling people to cover the cost of shelter and other expenses. Currently, Macaulay notes, there is a significant gap between what low-wage earners can afford to pay for housing and average rental rates in the region. Based on the assumption “affordable” means paying 30 per cent of one’s income for housing, someone earning minimum wage could afford to pay $455 a month for a one-bedroom apartment; the average rate for such apartments tops $710 per month.

Providing more housing for low-income residents costs money, an expense some people balk at. But there’s a pragmatic side to such measures: it’s far cheaper to find someone long-term housing than to pay for the police and health-care services that street people require. It’s expensive to scoop them up off the street and throw them in jail. That cost jumps even higher if an ambulance comes along and takes them for a stay in hospital or psychiatric ward. It’s up to 10 times the cost, she explains.

The only alternative would be to ignore them altogether, other than police involvement should they do anything to interfere with the lives of taxpayers – essentially leaving them to fate. As that’s not an option, the best course would be to reduce the impact on government coffers – something of a win-win situation, if you look at it in the right light.

Save money, and help some people as a bonus. Help people, and save some money as a bonus. Take your pick.

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