When Alex Rios arrived with his family in Canada from Colombia as refugees in 2010, they had just $126 to start their new lives. Rios and his wife Jenny Cordova had no job, no place to live with their sons, Matthew and Alex, and no food. Their family was homeless.

That’s when the Rios family moved into Mary’s Place, a shelter in downtown Kitchener designed for women and families. It was at the homeless shelter that the Rios family celebrated their first Christmas in Canada — an event Rios’ youngest son, Matthew, describes as "perfect."

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Outside the door of the family shelter rooms is a large room when men accessing the shelter sleep. (Amanda Grant/CBC News)

"Even though we weren’t in an actual home, just the four of us, it was still just the four of us as a family," Matthew Rios, now 12, said.

The Rios family’s story is one of many. According to a newly released joint report from the department of social services and housing at the Region of Waterloo, instances of families requiring emergency shelter in the region have increased 229 per cent between 2008 and 2012.

The jump, according to regional staff, demonstrates an increasing need for long-term affordable housing options for families in Waterloo Region.

Coming to Canada

Rios and his family arrived in Canada as refugees from Colombia. His family and brother had been killed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group on the Canadian government's list of terrorist entities, and had been receiving threats.

"They sent letters to my house saying I was going to be next," Rios said.

His family boarded a plane to Canada with no idea of what to expect, and found themselves in a shelter in downtown Kitchener days later.

The Rios family spent a month living at Mary’s Place, a YWCA shelter, before moving into the first apartment that became available.

But the new living arrangements weren’t an improvement. The family felt unsafe — police officers were daily visitors to the building. The building was covered in graffiti, Rios said, adding the hallways "smelled like drugs."

"I couldn’t have my family there," Rios said.

So the family moved back into a shelter, this time in Cambridge.

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Alex, 15, and Matthew, 12, now live in a housing co-op with their parents in Cambridge. (Amanda Grant/CBC News)

Rios and his family stayed at the Cambridge Shelter for four months.

It was a difficult time for the family, sharing space with other men and women accessing the shelter, and eating food unfamiliar to them.

"When you have a place that is yours you make it yours," said Jenny Cordova. "At the shelter you try your best to do that, but it’s not the same."

Finding a home

The family started meeting regularly with a counsellor at the Cambridge Shelter. She helped them fill out applications for housing and Ontario Works, and did activities and crafts with the children, who were nine and 12 at the time.

"Things started getting better when we started getting support," Rios said.

Eventually, the family was matched to a townhouse in a Cambridge housing co-op. It isn't a community housing unit - the complex provides housing to families at a reduced rent, and asks that they help to maintain the property, participating in fall clean-ups, helping at community events and completing building repairs.

"Now when I come home I say ‘home sweet home,’" said Alex Rios, now 15.

"I think when you don’t have a place to live you feel like you don’t belong anywhere," Cordova said.

Regional needs

Today, there is 3,000-person waitlist for community housing in Waterloo Region. While the vacancy rate in the region has increased to 2.6 per cent in 2012 from 1.8 per cent in 2008, it is still below what regional staff refer to as a "healthy rate" of three per cent.

'I think when you don't have a place to live you feel like you don't belong anywhere.'—Jenny Cordova

"A low vacancy rate and no increase in available private market rental units can create increased competition for the stock available, often shutting out people in our community… increasing housing instability and contributing to greater rates of homelessness," Friday’s regional report concluded.

It took the Cordova family over five months to find adequate housing — yet many more wait years before finding a home.

The average wait time for families seeking community housing administered by the region is between four to five years, according to regional housing staff.

"I think when you don’t have a place to live you feel like you don’t belong anywhere," Cordova said.