As the Region of Waterloo makes efforts to increase its shelter space, recently opening 45 emergency shelter beds in Kitchener in advance of launching its first sanctioned encampment on the west side of Waterloo later this winter, some in the community are wondering why a number of un-housed individuals continue to pitch tents in public spaces.
Carrying nearly every possession they own on his back, a resident of the Cambridge encampment in the parking lot of 150 Main St. walks to their tent during a recent day of frigid temperatures and says he would rather sleep outdoors than at a shelter like the Bridges.
“I can’t go back there, I can’t control my environment there,” said Jacob, whose name has been changed in respect of privacy concerns.
At his tent, he is completely in charge; what he can bring in with him, what he can do and who he allows in is in his own hands.
“I have all of my stuff here. My cooking pots and utensils, I can’t bring none of this in with me,” he added. “I’ve gone in there before, left my stuff tucked away in the park and it still got stolen.”
Not only is Jacob afraid of losing his possessions, he is also worried of who he might run into. He describes his past as being a hellhole he wouldn’t want to see anyone have to go through.
He briefly talks about his time using drugs and can’t risk putting himself in a situation where others might tempt him to use.
“I have a past that I’m not proud of. I’ve done a lot of things that I can’t dream of doing again,” said Jacob. “I don’t know who is in there or who will come there. It’s better for me to just stay out here.”
Jacob isn’t the only one who is avoiding the shelter system here in Cambridge.
During the big snow storm before Christmas, the Bridges Shelter opened up extra beds, reserved overflow spots at a local motel and still reported only three individuals checking in; none were from the encampment.
“We know everyone at that encampment and during that storm we didn't have a single person come in,” said Bridges executive director, Wayne Paddick. “I guess they just decided to hunker down in their tents and stay put.”
There are multiple reasons someone would choose an encampment over a shelter like the Bridges, Paddick said. This could stem from mental health issues, property concerns or a worry about safety.
Paddick has called for a better diversity of shelters available to the community including: a dry shelter that is free of drugs, a youth shelter, a women's shelter and a standard shelter like the Bridges. He has pitched this multiple times to the regional council, but unfortunately they keep giving him the same answer; there's no room in the budget.
Regional councillor for Cambridge, Doug Craig, wants to see more funding come from the province and calls on the Ontario government to accept homelessness and drug addiction as their issue too.
"We need to get all of the MPPs together and make them realize it is not just the municipalities that should be handling this," said Craig. "We need more help from them, they have the money and legislation."
In his proposal for this year's regional budget, Craig calls for more funding to shelters and more social workers to support members of the un-housed community.
The region is currently working on opening the first outdoor shelter with 24/7 supervision from The Working Centre and wrap-around supports in Waterloo with plans on opening one in Cambridge in the near future.
The region is also waiting for a a judicial decision on an injunction application to clear out encampments that should provide better direction on how best municipalities can respond to the issue going forward.
Craig thinks this decision will provide more clarity on whether or not they can remove residents from the camps.
"If we move people from these camps, they need a place to go," he added.
Paddick wants to know why there is not an open shelter in Cambridge yet, despite there being multiple vacant properties owned by the region in the city.
"It always feels like Cambridge comes second to the Kitchener and Waterloo," he added. "If they need funding for something they are a lot more likely to get it and the people in Cambridge will not cross the 401 to get to any services."
A request for comment from staff at the Region of Waterloo was not returned by press time.
Jacobs said if Cambridge was to open an outdoor shelter he would go and check it out, but doesn't feel comfortable committing to using it.
"I would have to see what it's like," he said. "I might be more comfortable out here on my own, but I know a lot of people here would go there if they could."