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'We're at a crossroads,' say housing experts meeting in Cambridge for National Housing Day

With the nation's eyes on Waterloo region, housing experts and regional officials talk about how to end chronic homelessness
Erin Dej speaks to the crowd at the Old Post Office on National Housing Day

Housing experts, industry leaders and advocates from across the region came to Cambridge today to recognize National Housing Day.

They filled the Old Post Office Idea Exchange where regional officials spoke about the state of homelessness in the region and connected with housing advocates. 

"Homelessness didn't use to look like this," said Erin Dej, housing advocate and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. "Now all eyes from across the nation are on Waterloo region to see how we are going to handle this situation." 

While a judge's decision to forbid the region from evicting encampments may have drawn national attention to Waterloo region, Dej points to the provincial government's de-funding of social services and letting affordable rental units disappear as one of the main causes of the homelessness crisis.

This provincial de-funding has forced municipalities, despite their lack of revenue compared to provincial and federal governments, to be tasked with housing and solving homelessness in their own communities. 

"The social safety net that was built over the last 30 years was eroded and continues to be stripped away," she added. 

With this responsibility of housing being thrown at municipalities, Dej thinks we are at a crossroads and what we decide to do next is quite literally a matter of life and death. 

"When we are to displacing people, leaving them out in the cold or heat, demanding that we don't have to see the reality of the situation and not providing housing that works, the consequences are ultimately death," she said. "The lives of people who are homeless are quite literally cut in half when we fail to realize the human right to housing."

The region has been working with advocates like Dej and others to come up with a plan to end chronic homelessness. Peter Sweeney, commissioner of community services at the region has been heading the ambitious project and knows with the support of the community anything is possible. 

"Events like these are an amazing way to find out the needs of workers and residents that will help inform our plan to end chronic homelessness," said Peter Sweeney, commissioner of community services at the region. "We all have one goal in mind, to ensure that everybody in this community has a safe place to call home."

Sweeney is presenting some of his team's findings to regional council tonight to update them on what his staff and and community partners will need to effectively end chronic homelessness.

"The update will include a investment of $14 million next year, of which $11 million would would be funded through our tax levy. It really represents a broad set of tools in a larger toolbox that will get us started on the road to end chronic homelessness," he added. 

The region has admitted to having little to no help from the province and is having to fund this project on its own. 

The cost to implement the plan has reached $30 million over the next two years, a chance that Sweeney said the region must take if they want to get a handle on the situation.

"Yes this plan is ambitious, but there are two options, ending chronic homelessness and then kinda ending homelessness," said Sweeney. "We have to make sure that if we are doing this, we are doing it right."

The plan includes recommendations that will address certain gaps in the system with a 2024 investment of over $11 million into services like expanded hybrid shelter spaces, the creation of encampment response and outreach teams, portable rent supplements and motel stays.

An additional $3.1 million will go towards service costs the following year from places that requested help for various programs and service add ons. They include Porchlight counselling, the Cambridge YWCA and Argus House.

The region is also looking at a phased approach that would happen over a two year period, with about $8 million from next year's property taxes and $3.2 million coming from the tax stabilization reserve.

Those efforts would balloon to an estimated $19 million in added expenses in 2025, close to $16 million of which would be funded from the tax levy.

Regional Chair Karen Redman spoke at the event and announced that they have nearly met their 2021 goal of 2,500 affordable homes in five years with 2,350 homes either being in development or occupied to date. 

"Building safe, permanent and affordable housing is our ultimate goal," said Redman. "The creation of the plan to end chronic homelessness was created in the community, by the community for the community and while we have much work to still to do, we are making progress."

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Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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