The withdrawal of four host local churches from the Out of the Cold shelter program in Waterloo Region is an indication that things are moving in the right direction, says the CEO of the Waterloo Region YWCA.

The program, which has been running at capacity since it launched 15 years ago, can now only offer shelter and meals to homeless people for four days of the week, instead of seven.

But Elizabeth Clarke, the CEO of the Waterloo Region YWCA, says this is a good news story. The YWCA operates Mary's Place, a year-round shelter for women, families and transgender people. 

"It's not the loss itself, but I think the reason for the loss," said Clarke when asked why she thought the withdrawals were a good news story. 

"I think the churches that have made the decision to step away have done it on the understanding that they are really not necessary at this point."

Clarke says that when the Out of the Cold program began in Waterloo Region 15 years ago, there was a problem with shelter capacity in the region. Local shelters were smaller, did not have as much funding and could not meet the needs of the growing number of homeless people. 

"We don't have capacity issues anymore, but the churches were so popular with some of the people that they served, that they became the shelter of choice," said Clarke. 

She said that people who went to the Out of the Cold program liked that they could be anonymous at the churches, they felt there were no expectations were placed on them, and the church volunteers were friendly. Shelters are now much better equipped to deal with the needs of people – including those with mental health issues – who may use programs like Out of the Cold, she said.

KW Out of the Cold could not be reached for comment. 

Other shelters, region ready to help out

Lynn Randall, the director of social policy and planning at the Region of Waterloo, says that the existing shelter system is able to take on clients who had been using Out of the Cold.

"Capacity within the program is flexible and with the ability to utilize motels if extra spaces is required. So while an individual shelter may be busy on any given night, there is always room in the system overall to accommodate," she said. 

The region also provides funding and resources to transport clients to different shelters if one shelter is is full, said Randall.

Meanwhile the Charles St. Men's Hostel saw a drop in demand during the winter months while the Out of the Cold program was operating last year says Ron Flaming, the director of the Residential Services Program at the House of Friendship.

"We're still here and operating and supporting people who are experiencing homelessness and we can respond to that emergency need. What's really needed is supportive housing that can be a permanent home for people, so people don't have to be homeless," he said. 

Flaming says the House of Friendship is ready and able to help people who can't access the Out of the Cold program this year.