Waterloo region won't meet goal to end chronic homelessness by Jan. 2020: Clarke

The Region of Waterloo will not meet the goal of ending chronic homelessnes by January 2020 as outlined in the All In 2020 campaign. That's largely because of significant challenges the emergency shelter and supportive housing programs are facing, a staff report to regional councillors says.

Region's shelters see increase of people staying longer and with more complex needs, report says

The Region of Waterloo continues to look for ways to help keep people off the streets. A report going before regional councillors on Sept. 10 notes the emergency shelter system is seeing a rise in people staying for longer periods of time than in previous years, and the people seeking shelter often have complex needs, including addictions and mental health concerns. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

The region set an ambitious goal last year: End chronic homelessness by January 2020.

It's not going to happen.

"The numbers of high acuity individuals who, and those are the people that we're really targeting with our new supportive housing program, those numbers are actually higher now than they were when we started," regional Coun. Elizabeth Clarke said in an interview Wednesday.

She adds it's not that the region isn't finding housing for people. Instead, "people are being added to the list and returning to the list faster than they're coming off the list," she said.

The goal of the All In 2020 campaign was an ambitious one, and the Region of Waterloo would have been one of the first in the country to end chronic homelessness, but the problems the region is facing are too great, Clark says.

"There's a general acknowledgement now that that it isn't something that we're going to achieve," she said.

Shelters see longer stays, more complex needs

Emergency shelters in Waterloo region are seeing people staying for longer periods of time and they have more complex needs, such as mental health and addictions concerns, a new report to regional councillors says.

One of the largest issues the region faces is overcapacity. In the winter of 2018-2019, there were 107,340 bed nights, which measures the total number of shelter beds occupied per night.

That is a "notable increase" from 88,511 bed nights in 2017/18, the staff report said.

The increase in overcapacity is largely because people who are seeking out emergency shelters are staying for longer periods of time. People are staying longer because, in part, there's a lack of available affordable housing, the report notes.

For a single person to get into a community housing unit, the wait is currently 7.9 years.

"Additionally, there are few vacant affordable units in the private market," the report notes.

Shelters close for a few hours each day as a way to encourage people to search for housing or complete applications for wait lists, but the staff report notes some people "are discouraged by the lack of available housing and may be opting to not connect with service providers."

Regional programs keep people off the streets

As well, the needs of people seeking shelters and supportive housing are more and more being considered medium to high level. 

Often it's people with mental health or addictions issues who need more than just a meal and a place to sleep. They need further supports to help them find more permanent housing, which may include talking to landlords who are reluctant to rent to tenants with higher needs.

"That's really causing us to acknowledge that we may need to rethink some of our strategies and recognize that these numbers are not just a glitch but something that we're going to be dealing with for the foreseeable future," Clarke said.

The region is working on ways to reduce the number of people using emergency shelters. It includes a housing helpline that offers "alternative options" so shelter beds "are used as a last resort."

One way is to reach out to a housing helpline for suggestions on options if someone is facing eviction. The numbers can be found on the region's website and change depending on where people live, their age and whether it's a single individual or a family in need of help. 

The region has also consolidated wait lists for housing into one, called the PATHS list (prioritized access to housing supports). The list prioritizes people with the highest "depth of need" when a unit becomes available. Between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019, 355 individuals found housing through the PATHS process, the staff report says.

The region also works with people who are in shelters to develop active housing plans which helps people visualize what they need to do to find housing and the best way to reach that goal.

Shelters 'not a cheap proposition'

The region will also help with funding for tenants who have fallen behind in paying for rent and help prevent their evictions. Last year, the region spent $496,804 in rental arrears.

Clarke says while some might balk at the idea of the region paying someone's back rent, it's a cheaper option than seeing that person go into a shelter or, in extreme cases, be housed at a local motel when shelters are full.

The cost to put someone in a shelter can be about $70 to $90 a night, she says.

"It's not a cheap proposition to keep people in the shelters," she said.

When shelters are full and the region has to turn to putting people in motels, that is even more expensive and those people don't receive the same supports, Clarke says. Last winter a temporary shelter was set up in Kitchener to reduce the number of people housed in motels. The region is currently in talks with shelter providers to come up with a plan for this winter.

The report on emergency shelter and supportive housing programs in the region will go before regional councillors at the community services committee meeting on Sept. 10.


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