Homelessness and affordable housing a growing concern in Waterloo

The House of Friendship, via CBC

Homelessness is a growing concern in Waterloo Region, as the number of people without access to stable permanent housing has tripled in three years. Across the region, reports estimate that around 1,085 people — an all-time high — are experiencing some form of homelessness. 

With the cold winter months right around the corner, many shelters are looking for more options to support unhoused members of the community. 

The House of Friendship, a local non-profit that provides housing services along with other support, recently announced that it has found a temporary solution to accomodate all shelter users by Dec. 1. 

However, John Neufeld, the executive director of House of Friendship, explained that temporary housing supports are not a long term solution. “We can’t keep doing these short-term stop gaps — two months, six months, one year. It’s disruptive to the individuals we serve, it’s distributive to the people that are serving in this field,” he said. 

One major factor contributing to the skyrocketing rate of homelessness is a widespread shortage of affordable housing. In Waterloo, much like the rest of the province, housing and rent prices are increasing rapidly. 

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC), affordable housing should cost less than 30 per cent of pre-tax income. People paying above 30 per cent are considered core housing need, while those paying over 50 percent are considered in severe need. People in the severe need category are at risk of homelessness. 

A 2021 report from the Waterloo Undergraduate Students’ Association (WUSA) found that 70 per cent of student respondents spend more than a third of their monthly budget on housing costs, while more than 50 per cent spend more than half. 

Some students are also experiencing homelessness. According to the report, an estimated four per cent (80,000 people) of post-secondary students in Canada experience homelessness. These students live on the streets, sleep in their vehicles or couch-surf with friends — a situation typically referred to as “hidden homelessness.” 

In emergency situations, students are also accessing shelter supports, many of which are facing additional strain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wendi Campbell, the chief executive officer at The Food Bank of Waterloo Region noted that as government funds begin to dry up and housing costs continue to rise, the demand for their services is rising fast. 

As a result, some organizations, like the Cambridge Shelter Corporation, are preparing for an increase in users over the coming months. They are asking the public for support in the form of clothing donations, especially items like socks, hats and blankets, which provide important protection from the cold. 

Additionally, many temporary shelter leases implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic are coming to an end. Homeless encampments, such as one that has been set up at the corner of Stirling Avenue and Charles Street in Kitchener, are expected to become more common. “That’s why we need to move from temporary solutions to more permanent, longer term solutions,” Neufeld said.

However, longer term solutions are not always available to certain groups that need them. The WUSA housing report notes that while Canada has national strategies focused on poverty and housing, there is no program specifically targeting student homelessness in the region because student homelessness has not been identified as a problem. 

For students who need help, there are several options in the region. House of Friendship provides food and housing support as well as addiction treatment, all of which is accessible to students. Similarly, the KW community fridge, located in the Kitchener Market, provides free food to members of the community, including students. WUSA also provides a food support service — a non-profit service that provides confidential assistance and food hampers to members of the UW community experiencing food insecurity.