New role for shelters as region strives to end homelessness

Waterloo regional councillors have approved a new framework for the local shelter system that brings it into line with federal and provincial priorities to end homelessness.

Individuals to be moved as quickly as possible from shelter to permanent housing

Under the new framework, emergency shelters are being incorporated into a greater plan to end homelessness in the region. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Waterloo region wants to do whatever it can to keep people out of shelters.

Under a new framework approved by regional council, emergency shelter workers will aim to get people who are facing homelessness into alternative housing rather than the shelter.

"A number of things have changed over the years to say what is the goal of an emergency shelter? What's the job that they do?" said Deb Schlichter, director of housing services.

"Because we're moving towards ending homelessness, how does the shelter system fit into that picture now that that's our goal?"

In the past, Schlichter said shelters were seen as places to house individuals who had no other place to go.

Individuals who wanted to move from shelter into housing had to move through a series of stages. For example, a person might go from the street to a shelter to a transitional home to a supportive living arrangement and finally to regular housing.

'Housing ready' from the start

Waterloo regional councillors approved a new framework for the local shelter system with a goal of getting that brings it into line with federal and provincial priorities to end homelessness.

Under the new framework, people are considered "housing ready" from the moment they step through the door of a shelter. 

"You put them directly into housing, you put the right supports around them, and they can manage to live independently that way rather than having to go through that series of steps," Schlichter said.

"That changes the whole role of shelter to be a temporary place for people to stop in and sort of land briefly and then sort of move from there to other housing options. It's no longer the long-term housing option that it has become.

"It doesn't mean that nobody will ever be homeless again in the future, it just means that we will have a system in place [so that] when people become homeless, they're in and out of homelessness very quickly."

Piloted approach in 2013

Schlichter said they already tested this approach in 2013 with families facing homelessness and found that it worked very well. In two years, the region was able to prevent about 350 families from staying in a shelter.

"And then we said, well, if it worked with families, can we look at some other groups of people and see if we can use it perhaps for the really chronic homeless group," she said.

"We've put them directly into housing with financial assistance and extra supports, and they're staying housed, surprisingly. People never thought that could happen, that this was a group that could actually get housing and keep housing and we've been able to do that locally."

She said housing services will release a report in early April into the impact of this housing first strategy on the chronically homeless in Waterloo region.