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Every community deals with homelessness, social ills

That an event such as the Coldest Night of the Year has the potential to provide community-building benefits isn’t just something one says about a fundraising event. It does have the ability to raise awareness along with money, in this case financial support for the varied offerings of Woolwich Community Services.

Scheduled for February 22, the event is part of a Canada-wide fundraising effort to help the “homeless, hungry and hurting.” That’s a fairly wide net, as there a multitude of woes in today’s society that afflict growing numbers of our fellow citizens.

Those in need, including homeless people and those in need of mental health services, are much less visible in the rural parts of Waterloo Region. Even in the cities, the problems aren’t of the proportions seen in larger centers. That doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist: out of sight may mean out of mind for many of us, but that doesn’t change reality of the situation.

Regional government, having declared its intention of eliminating chronic homeless by the start of this year, has discovered the problem is larger and more intractable than it imagined. While there’s been an increase in shelter beds, for instance, demand and the length of stays in shelters – another indicator of the much-discussed affordable housing crisis – have grown even faster. Where the total number of shelter-bed nights was 88,511 in 2017-18, that number had climbed to 107,340 in 2018-19, regional figures show.

That problem is more pervasive in larger cities. Still, there are some elements of that to be found even here in Waterloo Region. The problem extends well beyond the stereotypical image, however.

Shelters are the frontline of the homelessness issue.

At a broader level, the rising home costs we’re all familiar with have an impact on affordable housing. The price increases ripple through then entire economy, doing the most harm to the disadvantaged.

Just because the region is relatively affluent and has made a strong push for social housing, there’s still much work to be done.

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.

As the shelter numbers indicate, however, much of the homelessness goes beyond the most troubled among us. Most can be 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, 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 is increasingly out of luck.

Events such as the Coldest Night of the Year draw attention to the problem, which is as valuable as the money raised.

Where an event can get a few hundred people out, there’s activism at work. Many of us may not call it such, perhaps relegating “activism” to tying oneself to an old-growth tree or blockading a road to disputed land, but it really does describe activities for the betterment of a community or society, especially when it’s led by people and not by government officials.

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