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Issues related to homelessness are beyond Woolwich’s purview

If the word “homeless” causes you to conjure up an image of 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 typically 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.

With the bid by A Better Tent City (ABTC) to set up shop in Woolwich, the issue is now front and center. The reaction has been overwhelmingly negative among residents of the Breslau area, though most people express support for the cause – it’s the location that has them concerned.

There’s a certain amount of NIMBY-ism at play, of course, as is the case with many social problems most of us support solving … just out of sight and out of mind.

The Spitzig Road site isn’t a solution to ABTC need for a new location, but the group is trying to help those who fall between the cracks of what is already a less-than-ideal system for dealing with homelessness. Those living in the tiny homes provided by the organization often can’t live in emergency shelters, for instance, due to addiction and/or mental health issues, notes ABTC volunteer Jeff Willmer, the former chief administrative officer for the city of Kitchener who has become the group’s chief spokesman.

“These are people with some challenging needs,” he notes.

Unlike people experiencing a temporary economic hardship, simply placing an ABTC resident in a subsidized housing unit isn’t likely to work, as he or she is likely to need more supports, Willmer says, noting that most of those currently housed at the Lot42 site have at one point lived in an apartment but were evicted for various reasons.

“You can’t just put them into another apartment. Many of them fear they’ll just be evicted again.”

ABTC residents require addiction services and a variety of supports just not available in conventional models.

It’s for that reason that they’ve ended up where they are.

Such homeless people – given that they have roofs over their heads, they aren’t homeless, in fact, as the group notes – are among those who might otherwise be considered chronically homeless, as opposed to those in short-term need, what’s classified as episodic homelessness. The latter group is more likely to be served by longer-term plans to create more affordable housing in the true sense, with rent geared to income.

Those dealing with drug addictions and mental health issues pose a more stubborn problem for the traditional, bureaucratic system.

Figures from 2018 put the number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness in Waterloo Region at 175, with the same number deemed episodically homeless. On an average day, there are 242 people occupying shelter beds, almost half of whom are among the chronically homeless. Another 40 people are unsheltered at any given time – it’s from among those people that ABTC draws residents.

A Statistics Canada study from earlier this year suggests homelessness in Ontario has been worsening over time, affecting younger people, and has shifted geographically to smaller but rapidly growing municipalities – the likes of the region’s urban areas. More than 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness in any given year, and 25,000 to 35,000 people may be experiencing homelessness on any given night.

Homelessness can encompass a range of circumstances, including living on the streets or in places not meant for habitation; staying in overnight or emergency shelters; living temporarily as a “hidden” homeless person with friends, family or strangers, or in motels, hostels or rooming houses; and residing in precarious or inadequate housing.

Shelters are the frontline of the homelessness issue. Other organizations such as ABTC come at the situation from different angles. Short-term solutions emerge at times, often sponsored by church groups that provides the kind of drop-in food-and-shelter services we associate with street people, serving meals and providing overnight shelter. Staffed by volunteers, they provide services from different locations on a rotating schedule.

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 a goal to eliminate homelessness by mid-decade – that doesn’t mean there isn’t 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. That situation requires special attention and raises the kind of concerns that have been discussed about A Better Tent City.

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.

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 by a factor of 10.

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.

Neither conventional programs for homelessness nor the experiment that is A Better Tent City falls to Woolwich alone, however.

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