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Cambridge needs 'way more supportive housing,' says long-time advocate

Sharon Livingstone, who retired as co-chair of the Cambridge Shelter Corporation’s Board of Directors in June, continues to serve the community after almost two decades of helping house the homeless in the city
Cambridge Shelter Corp. retired board chair Sharon Livingstone, right, with retired interim executive director Anne Tinker.

Cambridge homeless advocate Sharon Livingstone said more supportive housing is the key to ending chronic homelessness in the province.  

“We need way more supportive housing. This includes housing that comes with at least 12 to 24-hour wrap around services. In Cambridge, the only supportive housing available is the 20 units on the second floor of the Bridges. We need far more than that,” Livingstone said.

“To think that we have so many un-housed and homeless people right now, it's horrible.”

Livingstone retired as co-chair of the Cambridge Shelter Corporation’s (CSC) Board of Directors in June after working there for almost two decades helping house the homeless in the city.

“We need more supportive housing for all ages but especially for older adults,” Livingstone said.  

She said that people living with disabilities can receive more appropriate health care, and others, especially seniors, trying to stay in the community could benefit from supportive housing.

Livingstone said the need continues to grow.

“We know that a lot of older adults with lower incomes, have been longtime renters. And now, we see a lot of evictions because landlords want to turn their buildings over. All that impacts older adults,” Livingstone said.

“And for those in younger age brackets, there are no supports for them in Cambridge.”

This is why, Livingstone said, younger people are limited, often seen couch surfing, living on the streets or outside in tents.

“We need supportive housing all over the province, but especially in Cambridge.  We are really short.”

Livingstone has worked with homeless and vulnerable people throughout her adult life serving as executive director of a facility serving adults with physical disabilities, and as a consultant to academia and service organizations.

Her skills in teaching and research extend from working with individuals living with physical disabilities to seniors experiencing dementia.

First joining CSC as a volunteer 15 years ago, Livingstone went on to join the board of directors.

During her tenure as a board member, Livingstone saw several changes to the organization. When Cambridge Shelter Corporation was first established, the founders hoped the shelter would be a temporary situation.

However, as the number of people experiencing homelessness continued to rise, Livingstone recognized that CSC would become a long-term support.

“I began volunteering by looking for housing. I would go in Tuesday mornings and help people fill out paperwork to get on the regional housing list. I would call landlords and try to help people find their way to housing at that time. It wasn’t that easy, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult as finding housing is today.”

The Cambridge Shelter Corporation operates The Bridges, a year-round emergency shelter and drop-in centre with 20 affordable, transitional, bachelor apartments for individuals experiencing homelessness.

The shelter offers a continuum of services, programming, and support to assist clients with issues facing them so they can move forward towards permanent and affordable housing.

“When I first started volunteering there, we were still serving families. We had rooms set up upstairs and those were set aside for families. And then, at some point, it was decided that it was not in anybody’s interest for families to have to enter a shelter situation.”

A program was set up through another local agency to serve families, specifically.

“So, we converted those rooms, for men and women. We didn’t have very many women, mostly men, especially after the House of Friendship in Kitchener closed its doors," Livingstone said.

And then came COVID-19. The Bridges had to take precautions and reduce the number of people that it could take in.

According to Livingstone, most recently, the shelter serves a great number of refugees from the Toronto area who have come to Cambridge.

“And this is very different for the shelter. They are not used to that kind of work in terms of finding new contacts and ways of connecting people with a focus on refugees and the services that they need specifically,” Livingstone said.

“The other piece that I am also very concerned about is the great number of older people at the shelter. This is very traumatizing for anybody using a shelter, but especially for older adults. And they often have complex medical or physical problems, so this requires a lot more to house them.”

Livingstone’s drive to help those most vulnerable goes back to her high school years.

“I grew up as the only child in a well-off family. When I was in high school, I wanted to work for the Toronto Parks Dept. I always wanted to work downtown, specifically where there was poverty where there were immigrants, where I could see myself making a difference,” she said.  

“I have carried that thinking forward, all my life. I always wanted to try and find ways to give back because of that. I wanted to give back in a meaningful way.”

CSC said Livingstone has advocated with passion and commitment for stronger support for the homeless community, especially for those with complex needs.

“Sharon is dedicated. She has served on the board numerous times over the years,” said current volunteer board chairperson at CSC, Bob Howison.

But she also put in a lot of sweat labour too at the shelter. She ran the Cambridge Shelter Corporation golf tournaments and served on the speakers committee for while. She is a very compassionate person, and her heart is always in the right place.”

Although retired from the Cambridge Shelter Board, Livingstone will continue serve on various committees including the Cambridge Council on Aging, and the Waterloo Region Age Friendly Network.

“There is a great team of people who come together and we are blessed to have community organizations come and help out,” she said.

Widespread stigma surrounding the homelessness needs to change according to Livingstone as people experiencing homelessness face discrimination and exclusion as a result.

“It drives so much negativity against the people who are homeless. Being homeless might be because an adult is getting evicted. It might be because their partner died or has gone into long term care and they can’t pay the rent,” she said.

“We seem to have this thing in our society where we think that everyone who is homeless is mentally ill and a drug addict. And that’s simply not true. People who are homeless are also someone’s mother, father brother sister, grandfather, or grandmother.”

Unfortunately, Livingstone said, it all comes down to cost.  

“The province seems very reluctant to put money into supportive housing which is unfortunate because that is how we can keep people housed. The goal of any shelter is once we have people inside and safe, then we get them on a plan for finding housing, and then make sure that they stay housed,” Livingstone said.

“Supportive housing allows that to happen.”