Supporting encampments part of Region of Waterloo's new plan to end homelessness

Tuesday Region of Waterloo's Community Services Committee unanimously approved a long-term master plan for homelessness and shorter-term solutions that sanction encampments.

Council approved the staff recommendations unanimously

Two people, one walking beside a bicycle, cross at an intersection and walk towards multiple tents.
Tents now fill the lot at the corner of Victoria and Weber streets in downtown Kitchener. The region has said more than 60 people live at the site. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Regional council members heard the latest plans to end homelessness during a Community Services Committee meeting Tuesday. 

In June, council directed staff to formulate a plan offering interim housing solutions for residents experiencing homelessness "including those currently residing in encampments."

In the report that went before the committee, staff said they spoke with support agencies, local businesses and asked 53 people living in an encampment to complete a survey sharing their needs and experiences.

Council members heard recommendations based on that work, including a long-term master plan solution and an interim short-term plan that recommended options like a sanctioned, managed or hybrid approach to encampments.

Other recommendations include expanding the region's transitional housing program, home-based support program and the emergency shelter program.

Council approved the recommendations unanimously.

During the presentation, councillors heard from several delegates advocating everything from the decriminalization of homelessness, to allowing encampments and adding more wraparound support for people experiencing homelessness.

Mauleek Bhatt told councillors his experience going from working in the tech sector as a software engineer to becoming homeless after losing his job.

"I was compelled to start working as a food delivery person for Skip the Dishes and Door Dash. Then began the series of unfortunate events dealing with an acute lack of support and resources due to me not being a Canadian citizen," he told councillors.

"I ended up being homeless in 2019 right before the pandemic struck. It was a harrowing experience and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. But it made me kinder, stronger and with a deeper understanding of some of the issues that hale society today. "

Support for sanctioned encampment option

All delegates said they wanted to see encampments with services and support on site immediately. 

"The idea of sanctioned encampments or managed encampments are very interesting to this group to try and help and people have options that allow them to not experience criminalization," said David Alton with the Kitchener's Lived Expertise Working Group — who joined Bhatt in his delegation..

"Winter is coming and many people in the group have experienced how terrible winter is for people staying in unsafe shelters."

Peter Sweeney, commissioner of community services for the Region of Waterloo, said a community organization with the right tools and expertise to run the site may be needed. The site could include mobile trailers, small structures or tents.

"This would be a location to be determined that would require resources, will power and accommodations from the entire community," Sweeney said.

"When we talked about a managed [encampment approach] we envision a scenario where we would have a community partner willing to staff and provide the services required and the amenities required on site."

Sweeny and regional councillors said the expectation would be that the encampment option would only be a short-term solution. 

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, a member of regional council and sits on the Community Services Committee, told CBC News there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

"Early and open dialogue is going to be very important as we look to implement these models, ensuring that our staff are engaged in any of the thought and development around them," he said. 

"It will also be important to ensure that they are equitably distributed across the region and not concentrated in the one municipality because the pressures of unsheltered situations are being felt in communities across the region."

Vrbanovic said the amount of time needed to implement each model will vary.

"Something like a managed hybrid shelter outdoor model is something that can be implemented on a much quicker, urgent basis than — looking at the expansion of a transitional housing program as an example, where it may require more construction, more renovations."

Investments needed long term

Vrbanovic said the project will need investment from upper levels of government to ensure there will also be wrap around supports.

"The realities are that it's not going to happen overnight. What we need to do is ensure that there are safe places for individuals in question... done in a way that balances their needs along with the needs of the rest of the community."

Paying for such a plan wasn't accounted for in the Region of Waterloo 2022 budget. It will cost $3.4 million for September to December of this year and $10.2 million for 2023.

Craig Dyer, the region's financial commissioner said the region would need support from the province to continue the work long-term.

Councilor Jim Erb said though the operational costs are high, he believes it's necessary to support the region's homeless population.

"While the proce tag is big, we can't afford not to do it," he said. "Simply for the improvement in quality of life that these people deserve."

The issue will return to council on August 18 to be ratified.

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