Homelessness is a problem we want dealt with ... preferably out of sight
Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada
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Homelessness is a problem we want dealt with … preferably out of sight

Having planned to evict homeless people living in a tent encampment in Kitchener by today (June 30), Waterloo Region officials have backed down, taking refuge in the court process to help quell public backlash.

There are more than 50 tents set up on a piece land at the corner of Victoria and Weber streets. Arrangements have been made to provide those squatting there with services, from washrooms to security, at government expense.

Residents were served notice earlier this month of the pending eviction. Now, that move is on hold.

Regional officials are caught in a no-win situation. They face pressure from advocates saying municipalities should do more for the homeless, but also from people in the neighbourhood worried about increased crime and concerns about rising costs.

There’s also criticism about the lack of transparency, with the fault for that lying 100 per cent with the region.

The issue itself remains intractable, however, tied to a variety of problems – rampant growth, housing shortages, addiction, falling standards of living – with no easy solution or no political will to solve.

The situation is worse today than even a year ago when Woolwich was grappling with the bid by A Better Tent City (ABTC) to set up shop on a piece of land in the Breslau area. Higher housing prices and rampant inflation are driving up the cost of living for everybody, hitting hardest the most vulnerable.

As advocates note, many of those left homeless require addiction services and a variety of supports just not available in conventional shelters or subsidized housing.

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

Such homeless people 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 last year suggests homelessness in Ontario has been worsening over time, has been affecting younger cohorts, and has shifted geographically to smaller but rapidly growing municipalities – the likes of the region’s urban areas.

Shelters are the frontline of the homelessness issue. 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 the entire economy, doing the most harm to the disadvantaged.

Just because the region is deemed 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 raised 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. And it’s readily apparent that housing is increasingly unaffordable for a large percentage of the general population.

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.

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.

That’s a bit more difficult, naturally, when housing prices are beyond the reach of many, rents are skyrocketing and inflation is making staples a burden, let alone the cost of any indulgences. We have our own problems, and perhaps less inclination to worry about those of others.

There’s also 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.

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