As Kitchener encampment grows, region says enforcement's a 'last resort'
Encampment residents, advocate want region to consider making sanctioned site
With a tent, sleeping bag and several possessions in hand, 21-year-old Swayze makes his way to a vacant lot in downtown Kitchener.
It's what he'll call home for the next little while.
He set up his tent on Tuesday. It's one of a growing number at the corner of Victoria Street N. and Weber Street W. The lot started with one tent earlier this year, but has grown to 15 in the last two weeks.
The encampment is across the street from the Kitchener GO train station, and beside a plaza that is home to several businesses including a cooking studio, hair salon and bakery.
Wearing a grey jacket and a blue face covering, Swayze swings his black backpack down next to his plot.
"I'm here because I value my peace of mind above everything else. I needed to tent myself. I needed a self-growth journey of living in a tent and enjoying nature," he told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.
Swayze, which is the musician's stage and chosen name, moved to Kitchener from London six months ago after becoming homeless. He said the encampment has offered him a sense of community.
"They can help support each other instead of just being … alone," he said.
Across the vacant lot is Mark Ashley's tent. He's been living on the vacant lot at 100 Victoria Street N. since the start of the year. The 56-year-old moved there with his dog, Maribel.
"Everybody's here for their own reasons and their own problems and I can only hope that they get the help they need," Ashley said of the growing community.
Ashley said his new neighbours have maintained a clean space so far and hopes that'll remain the case to avoid eviction.
"We can't always choose where we live, but we can sure choose the mess that we leave and how we can clean up," he said, noting he knows they could be evicted if the site isn't kept tidy.
Region steps up services
The region said it's aware of the growing encampment on regionally owned property.
Chris McEvoy, manager of housing policy and homelessness prevention, said staff are working with community partners to support people living there. He said since the encampment has started to grow, several short-term actions were introduced such as more frequent garbage and needle pick up and graffiti cleaning.
McEvoy said outreach staff with the region, Sanguen Health Centre and The Working Centre, are also regularly checking in on people living at the encampment and providing them with information about where they can access basic needs (laundry and showers) and housing opportunities.
Many other community partners, including church volunteers, have stopped by to help, he said.
The goal, he said, is to offer a "service-first approach." It means supporting the people in the encampment to help them connect with services and meet their basic needs first, then help them transition to the next step toward permanent housing, McEvoy said.
He said the region is following its revised policy on encampments that prioritizes the health and respect of people experiencing homelessness and their possessions. Enforcement and eviction is a last resort, the policy says.
Enforcement a last resort
The region committed to revising its policy after taking accountability and apologizing for the way it evicted an occupied encampment in downtown Kitchener in November 2021.
There was public outrage after the region approved an eviction of an encampment at Charles Street and Stirling Avenue that involved a road maintenance crew. The region said heavy equipment was used to help remove large items and because of broader health and safety concerns including broken glass, drug paraphernalia and sharps.
The revised policy that passed in December said senior management must approve decisions involving vulnerable people and the civic responsibility of maintaining public safety. That was previously the decision of director or manager level staff.
When asked whether the region plans to evict people living at the current encampment at Weber and Victoria streets, McEcovy echoed the region's policy.
"Enforcement and move on is always a last resort. It's based on individual circumstances, and it's done in collaboration with multiple stakeholders," he said.
Rapid response proposal on hold
Last month, regional staff introduced a proposal for a mobile rapid response outreach team that would employ several support staff including mental health workers and paramedics who would work with people living in encampments. The proposed outreach team would cost the region more than $1 million per year.
However, regional councilors withdrew the proposal to do more consultation with service providers.
Jim Erb, regional councillor and chair of the affordable housing and homelessness steering committee for the region, said the proposed outreach team would be an additional measure to ensure people staying at encampments have the support they need.
Erb said the intent is to "try and build up relationships with people who are living in the encampments" before they become too large.
"We might be able to mitigate the size and find supports where those people could be supported in a more safe and secure setting," Erb said.
He said it's unclear when the revised proposal will come back to council.
Sanctioned encampment site
Encampments have been growing in number and size in Waterloo region due to the widening inequality gap, according to Ruth Cameron, executive director of the Aids Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area ( ACCKWA). The group provides support and outreach services in the region.
Cameron said increasing rental costs, a lack of regulation in rental housing and the loss and lack of affordable housing are at least partly to blame.
"All of those things together along with what's going on in the current market create a pretty impossible condition for people with the least amount of resources to secure themselves," Cameron said.
A point-in-time count conducted in September 2021 found that about 1,085 people are homeless in Waterloo region. More than 400 of them were living rough, including in encampments.
Cameron said she and many other local advocates have been calling for temporary but immediate solutions such as the creation of a sanctioned encampment site that is serviced to mitigate health and safety concerns.
"I don't want anyone to have to live in an encampment," Cameron said.
"But if it's not safe to be in a congregate setting because COVID still exists and people would like to have a little bit of freedom and autonomy [that] they can have being in a tent with their possessions, apart from other people, then let's find a way to do that using harm reduction principles and make it as safe as possible while the region is working on affordable housing," Cameron said.
Both Ashley and Swayze said they'd like to see a sanctioned space.
McEvoy said there are no active conversations within the region about sanctioning an encampment site. Long term, he said, the region's affordable housing plan aims to develop up to 2,500 new homes over the next five years.
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With files from Joe Pavia