Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

How a budding entertainment producer became homeless in Ontario in a system he calls 'inhumane'

A Kitchener, Ont., man shares his story about how he went from aiming to become a producer in the entertainment industry to having no permanent home, and what changes he hopes to see from the region.

Family of Kitchener man hopes a review of the region’s encampment eviction process brings change

Shannon Robert Burt, 41, had a dream to become an entertainment industry producer, but a series of unfortunate events led to him becoming homeless in Kitchener, Ont. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

A few years ago, Shannon Robert Burt had a job, a college certificate and a dream: to become a producer in the entertainment industry. 

But by late 2017, a series of unexpected events — divorce, a concussion and worsening mental health — changed the course of the Kitchener, Ont., man's life. 

For the past three years, he's been homeless. 

Burt lost a temporary home on Nov. 26 as he was among the people who had set up camp behind a bus shelter in the city, an encampment evicted by regional officials. A front-end loader was used to remove people's belongings, including those of the 41-year-old.

His story highlights the intersection between mental illness, addiction and unstable housing — and the lack of support for people across Waterloo region who are struggling with all three issues. 

Burt's story

Described as a "kind and bright man" by his mother, Burt completed a certificate in radio broadcasting. His first shot at college didn't work out, but he was determined to create a future as a producer. 

"I'm an entertainer," he said. 

But shortly after his divorce, he suffered a serious concussion that he said exacerbated his anger issues and mental illness. He was already living with bipolar disorder.

As a result, he said, his drug addiction worsened and during this period, he was in a state of complete "blackout."

He couldn't make rent and got evicted three years ago from the place he moved into on his own.

Burt has been unhoused ever since, grappling with a crystal meth addiction and health issues while trying to survive in a system that he said is constantly failing him.

Burt had moved into A Better Tent City, which provides tiny homes to people in need of housing, after the region destroyed the encampment at Charles Street East and Stirling Avenue South in Kitchener. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Evicted from shelters, encampment 

Burt doesn't have many housing options as he's been removed from several local shelters due to bad behaviour.

"They failed me," he said.

A regional spokesperson said keeping clients and staff in the shelter system safe is a priority. 

"If participants are unable to maintain a safe shelter stay, they may have services restricted or may be offered another housing option in another shelter or motel," a statement said.

Burt moved into A Better Tent City, a space that provides tiny homes to people in need of housing, after the region destroyed the encampment at Charles Street East and Stirling Avenue South in Kitchener.

"I lost three tents, one of which was gifted to me by a perfect stranger," he said of the destruction. "I wanted to keep that tent forever [but] I just couldn't empty it. I had been there too long." 

People lined up the corner of Charles Street East and Stirling Avenue South, where the encampment was set up, to protest Waterloo region's decision to clear the encampment. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

The eviction sparked public outrage and the region eventually apologized for the way it was carried out. Last week, regional council committed to a review of the process that led to the eviction.

Burt hopes the review will lead to more resources for safe supply.

"I'm sick of moving."

'The parent is not a professional' 

During that time, Burt's mother has stayed by his side, despite the personal challenges she has faced.

"It's been very difficult," Laura Edwards said. 

"When he's not using, he's a very kind and bright individual. He has two sides to him, though … The drug that he uses is not kind to him at all and the anger that comes out ... he reacts in a very negative way that's hard for other people to accept."

Laura Edwards, Burt's mother, hopes to see positive change in light of the regional council's commitment to review the process that led to the eviction at a Kitchener encampment. (Hala Ghonaim/ CBC )

Edwards wants the review to bring forward better housing, mental health and addictions support — anything that will help her son.

She said she's done the best she can with the resources she has: she's tried to make sure her son has food, clothing, boots, blankets — and a sleeping bag and tent to sleep outside. Edwards let him stay on her porch and in the backyard to keep him safer and her safe, too, she said.

"The parent is not a professional," she said. "But professionally, I can't give him counselling, I can't help him with his drug addiction. We, as parents, can't deal with that on an ongoing basis and look after ourselves too."

Nadine Green, the site co-ordinator at A Better Tent City, also wants tangible change from the region. 'I don't think they understand the homeless people. I don't like what they're doing, driving people out of their encampments.' (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Nadine Green, site co-ordinator for A Better Tent City, also hopes there will be tangible change.

"I don't think they understand the homeless people. I don't like what they're doing, driving people out of their encampments," she said.

"I think that they just need to do better and try to come up with a better plan for people, maybe have more tiny homes like this where people can just live their life on their own terms."

A regional spokesperson said the region is committed to an affordable housing plan that includes 2,500 new homes in five years.

Incidents across Ontario 

Waterloo region isn't the only municipality to come under fire for its approach to clearing an encampment. 

This is the inside of Burt's tiny home at A Better Tent City. He said he's waiting on a space with windows. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Almost two weeks ago in Hamilton, an encampment was evicted after tents went up in flames, creating "health and safety concerns," the city said. Protesters who tried to stop the evictions clashed with police. As a result, several people were arrested.

Advocates compared the actions of Hamilton police to arrests during encampment standoffs in Toronto this past summer. The city and police cleared four encampments in three parks, including Trinity Bellwoods Park, but clashed with people staying there and their supporters.

Toronto's ombudsman has launched an investigation into Toronto's clearing of encampments after complaints were raised about the city's approach.

Demonstrators attempting to topple a fence are pepper sprayed by Toronto police enforcing an eviction order at an encampment at Lamport Stadium on July 21. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Burt said one word comes to mind regarding the way the region and other municipalities have handled encampments.

"Inhumane," he said.

"And that's my story: Inhuman, un-human, demonic, evil, capitalism. It's a fact that you cannot have capitalism without poverty. It's a byproduct. It's collateral damage."

Regional officials are slated to provide an update on the review of the encampment destruction this month.

While that's underway, local advocates continue their push for change. An online petition calling for a moratorium on encampment evictions has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

Kitchener man shares his experience with homelessness

8 months ago
Duration 0:59
A Kitchener man's experience with homelessness in a system that has challenged him.