Regional councillors aren’t quite ready to sanction homeless encampments, but they’re eager to find a new home for A Better Tent City (ABTC), and could consider widening the scope of the project as area municipalities grapple with rising rates of homelessness and a lack of affordable housing.
The move to support the grassroots project was part of a lengthy discussion on the topic of homelessness that filled close to three hours of the region’s committee of the whole meeting Tuesday.
More than a dozen delegations spoke in support of the ABTC model and the need for more creative approaches to housing the region’s growing homeless population.
A recent study on how big the issue is used a shared database called the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS).
A July tally determined 105 people live in encampments or other makeshift outdoor shelter, and almost all of those individuals are what are considered chronically homeless.
Some homeless individuals don’t consent to being tracked, making it difficult to know the real numbers.
A Better Tent City manger Jeff Wilmer said credible estimates put the number of people “living rough” in Waterloo region at closer to 750.
Numbers tallied in June show the average number of people accessing emergency shelter on a given night was 206, and the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness in the region was 339.
To better determine the depth of homelessness, the region is planning a Point in Time (PiT) count in September to get a better grasp of the numbers.
The region says the data collection strategy is required by federal and provincial governments to help identify the characteristics of those experiencing homelessness and to enhance system planning and program development, measure progress toward ending homelessness, and increase public awareness about homelessness.
"When we do the Point in Time count we will be able to get better idea of what the reality is," said director of housing services for the region Ryan Pettepiere.
But even then, given the fluidity of homelessness and consent, it's not necessarily the definitive, full scope of homelessness, he added.
The reality of homelessness in Cambridge is particularly elusive because of the way homeless encampments are tracked.
City of Cambridge bylaw relies on complaints to identify encampments, meaning multiple complaints come in for the same encampment.
Nonetheless, complaints in the city have been rising steadily since 2017 when 83 were logged by bylaw staff. So far this year, the city has logged 365 complaints about encampments.
In comparison, bylaw staff in the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo responded to 30 and 31 encampments respectively so far this year.
Set up in a temporary location at a former Kitchener event space, A Better Tent City, which provides insulated cabins to house up to 50 individuals, has so far been unable to secure a more permanent location.
Wilmer is asking for the region’s support to expand the scope of the search for a new home for ABTC to include public land owned by the region, municipalities and the province.
The move goes against the region’s approach to ending homelessness, however, which is a housing first strategy.
Douglas Bartholomew-Saunders, commissioner of community services, says part of the problem in Waterloo region may be attributed to the level of "generosity" offered to the homeless population in comparison to other municipalities.
"We do have people coming to this region because of the levels of services they get here," he said. "It's an attractor for the homeless to the region."
In other words, making accommodations for efforts like A Better Tent City, could be adding to the problem.
“Supported encampments are not part of the Region's strategic directions or actions to address or end homelessness and are mechanisms that perpetuate homelessness,” Pettepiere wrote in his report.
"Investing in ABTC or sanctioning encampments directs resources away from programs and services in the Housing Stability System that focus on connecting people to permanent housing which is the answer to homelessness."
The region increased support services for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, and says it has been working with area municipal staff, police, street outreach providers and community partners to develop a coordinated encampment response protocol.
"This approach involves balancing the needs of all stakeholders, including those experiencing unsheltered homelessness, rather than taking a zero-tolerance approach that serves to isolate further and disconnect these vulnerable community members."
Pettepiere said the region is accelerating the development of up to 2,500 new affordable homes, some of which will house "those with the longest experiences of homelessness and most complex needs."
The region is also focused on encouraging developers to build more affordable housing units through development charge grants and deferrals, financial incentives and loans.
But Wilmer said the reality is that building affordable housing will take years.
“What do we do in the meantime?”
He disagrees with that assessment that approaches like ABTC perpetuate homelessness and said it instead works to fill the gap between unsheltered homelessness and supportive housing by bringing people to a community that supports them while providing access to shower, laundry, home cooked meals and access to health care.
Many of the people who experience chronic homelessness have given up hope and their families have given up on them, Wilmer said. That’s why they choose to “live rough.”
A living situation like ABTC forces interaction within a community so volunteers can gain their trust and encourage a move into a supportive housing environment.
“This community of people has become family,” he said, adding one of the key things they’ve learned since the project’s inception is that it gives people hope.
“This is keeping unsheltered people off the streets, out of the parks, out of the woodlots until supportive housing is available,” he said.
Regional councillor Sue Foxton agreed the bureaucracy of the regional approach may be getting in the way of helping some of the community's most vulnerable.
"You need to go by hard data," Foxton told regional staff. "The people at ABTC go 110 per cent by heart."
"Should the region be 100 per cent involved? I would say no, because we’re bureaucrats," she said. "I’m worried they won’t trust us. They haven’t gone to this phase of trusting.
"I think we have to work in partnership with tent city, but allow them to maintain their unique identity"Paule Charland, of the Unsheltered Campaign, supported Wilmer’s call for the region to sanction locations for projects like ABTC and called for municipalities to stop evicting and dispersing encampments, calling the practice “unrealistic and cruel.”
The executive director of the Social Development Centre Waterloo Region, Aleksandra Petrovic, said the true cost of doing the same without being responsive and adaptive to the problem is transferred to the entire community.
She said there is plenty of research supporting the need to decriminalize encampments and provide supports like modular, tiny, prefab homes on public land.
“All we have to do is trust the knowledge of direct service providers and let those experiencing homelessness take the lead,” she said.
In putting forward a motion to support ABTC's efforts, regional councillor Berry Vrbanovic said it's "several years away, under a best case scenario where we can house all of homeless people."The motion, which gained unanimous support from committee members, also asks regional council to direct staff to bring a report with "recommendations for additional supports for alternative options within the emergency shelter mechanisms in the Region of Waterloo."