Region to open 3 sites for short-term accommodations to people who are homeless this winter

The region says three sites will open in the coming weeks to help people who are homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic and impending colder weather.

Since March, more than 150 people have moved from shelters into permanent housing, region says

Earlier this year, a temporary shelter was set up at the A.R. Kaufman YMCA in Kitchener. It has since closed, but the region says it will set up three sites to provide short-term accommodation to people who are homeless this winter during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Peter Sweeney)

Three community sites are going to serve as short-term accommodations for people who are homeless in Waterloo region to keep them safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and over the winter months.

Two of the sites have been finalized while a third is in the process of being approved, the region said in a release Thursday. The approved sites are the YWCA, operating out of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Kitchener, and The Working Centre in Kitchener, which will operate out of the Waterloo Co-operative Residence's Hammar building on University Avenue in Waterloo.

The sites are scheduled to open in the next month.

The sites will be funded by the region and will allow people to keep physically distant from others while also offering food, harm reduction supplies and support to find permanent housing.

The region says they have plans to add shelter beds in Cambridge "should they be needed over the coming months."

"Since the pandemic began, there has been only one case of COVID-19 among this population and over 150 people have moved from shelters into permanent housing," the region said.

Meals, support and a personal space to sleep

Joe Mancini, who established The Working Centre with his wife Stephanie, says the space in Waterloo will provide housing for 80 people for a year, but if they're able to help people move into more permanent housing, they will.

The Working Centre will provide meals three times a day and there will be staff on each floor. Each person will have their own sleeping space, but will share washrooms and communal areas.

He said they've been supporting about 40 people throughout COVID-19 by putting them up in motels.

Last November, The Working Centre set up shelters to help people that might have been living with family and friends off and on, but were essentially homeless. During the winter, he says there were few options for them for shelter. 

"We found through COVID, the region was able to open up, through [funding from] the federal government, the ability for us to house some of this group that were in really severe mental and having health issues," he said.

Giving people choice

Elizabeth Clarke, who is CEO of the YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo and also a regional councillor, says the space at St. Mark's will be more of a traditional shelter space, with beds in a large gym. She says having the two options — traditional or dorm style — is important to give people choice.

"One of the things that we're realizing is, we don't just need more capacity in the system, we do need more choice in the system," she said. "We can have empty beds and people aren't necessarily going to them."

She says last year, the highest number of single men in the shelter system reached 144. This year, the region is planning to have space for more individuals. She says they will also be monitoring the situation this winter and expand if necessary.

She says regional workers are also now going into shelters to talk to people about housing supports available to them.

"We've actually housed dozens and dozens of people over the course of the pandemic," she said.

Housing offers stability

House of Friendship also housed people in a hotel and told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo that it provided stability to people who needed to use the 24-hour service. Incident reports generated by staff went down by more than 40 per cent and overdose rates dropped by 50 per cent even though the shelter nearly doubled its capacity from serving 51 men to 97. As well, 18 people found permanent housing.

Mancini says they've seen similar results with the people they're housing in motels.

"We've seen a lot of stability happen and we're kind of hoping that stability will transfer into this place and we're going to work hard to make that a possibility for people. And it's from that possibility that people then are able to access some of the housing measures available," he said.

Looking ahead, Mancini says they can use support for the new housing. While the region is paying for the building, other items such as twin sized sheets, mattress covers, pillows, pillow cases and towels are needed.

"The fact is, any help is appreciated," he said.