Dorm-style emergency shelters being considered to help region's homeless

Regional staff have been directed to look into possibly opening two dormitory-style emergency shelters for this fall to help people who are experiencing homelessness. Some advocates say it's a good first step, but the region needs to focus on more permanent solutions.

Shelters faced capacity pressures before COVID-19 and the pandemic made it worse, staff say

A person sleeps in an empty storefront in downtown Kitchener in October 2019. The region is looking at creating dorm-style spaces for people experiencing homelessness this fall. Staff estimate it could cost up to $7 million for up to 160 spaces for one year. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Regional staff have been directed to look at ways to open two dormitory-style emergency shelter spaces for this fall and winter.

The plan is to create space for a minimum of 160 emergency shelter spaces, which could cost as much as $7 million, half of which would be to cover the costs of staffing and half would be for renting the spaces for a year. Staff are also being directed to look at more options for alternative housing that could be implemented in spring 2021.

Regional Chair Karen Redman moved the motion to support the staff report, but with the caveat that the region would also seek partnership opportunities and funding from sources other than the region.

"I do think that this is a priority for us," Redman said, although she also admitted, "I did have some sticker shock."

Coun. Elizabeth Clarke said having two sites also allows the region to be flexible with how it delivers services, including considering lowering the barrier to entry for people who need the service.

COVID-19 'exacerbated' shelter capacity pressures

Before the pandemic, there were 244 spaces in six region-funded shelters.

When shelters are full, the region puts people into motels. A staff report noted that there has been "ongoing capacity pressures" on the shelters for the past few years and shelters are over capacity most nights.

"The pandemic exacerbated capacity pressures," the report said.

Chris McEvoy, the region's manager of housing policy and homelessness prevention, said ideally they would want to open spaces in September. That's because there's always an increased need in the fall and winter months, but it will also allow them to prepare for a potential second wave of COVID-19.

'Not all solutions work for everybody'

Councillors heard from a number of people who said the plan is a good first step, but more work needs to be done to get people into permanent housing.

Laura Hamilton of Kitchener volunteers with the group Food Not Bombs, which provides meals for people experiencing homelessness, and the group A Better Tent City, which has set up tiny homes in the parking lot of Lot 42.

She called on the region to have housing options for everyone experiencing homelessness by Nov. 15 before the snow flies.

"I know that you are committed to housing first, yet being unsheltered and living rough remains a crime and being addicted remains stigmatized," she said. "Rather than forcing unsheltered residents to fit into your service offerings, I'm asking that you centre the needs of these complex, social beings as you expand supportive housing in our region. And expand it you must."

Jeff Willmer volunteers with the group A Better Tent City. He called on the region to increase the number of emergency spaces it's planning to create for this fall, saying the need may be far greater than the region expects. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Jeff Wilmer, also with the group A Better Tent City, said he was worried the region still would not have enough spaces for people.

"There are many people living rough in the community, unsheltered, and it may well be that there's a lot more people needing shelter accommodation than is being proposed and, or, as other delegations have suggested, not all solutions work for everybody and we may need a wider variety of solutions," he said.

Ryan Pettpiere is the region's director of housing services. He told councillors the plan is forward-looking and considers how to "transition people from the shelter system into permanent housing."

"One of the challenge numbers to really nail down is exactly how large the unsheltered population is," he said. "We know we have significant work to do on this front and we know that we're at a position where the shelter system as a whole has to go through significant changes."