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Youth homeless shelter struggles to find footing in Cambridge

OneRoof has taken in 45 Cambridge youths in three months at their Kitchener facility and advocates say it calls for a local solution
homeless youth shelter
Advocates are desperately trying to get a youth shelter built in Cambridge.

For the last few years, advocates have been trying to get a youth shelter established in Cambridge; and every year they are denied by the regional council. 

OneRoof Youth Services has been operating out of Kitchener since 1989, but their reach extends across the entire region.

Over the past few years, they have noticed a gap in services in Cambridge and have made multiple proposals to Waterloo regional council for funding to open up a Cambridge location. 

“The region has said they don’t have the funding for a youth location in Cambridge,” said Sandy Dietrich-Bell, CEO of oneRoof. “Despite us reaching out to them for years, they can’t find the funding for it in Cambridge.” 

OneRoof operates a shelter that will provide beds for precariously housed individuals as well as find homes that will offer up a room for rent to keep children off the streets. 

Bell stressed the importance of a youth shelter and what this would mean for the community in Cambridge. They have seen a drastic increase in young people finding themselves in un-housed situations and this only paints a small picture of the reality these children are facing. 

According to Bell, Cambridge youth are far less likely to travel to Kitchener to accept shelter services, because of the distance and the unfamiliar environment.

In Cambridge, they have their peer groups, family and school so their incentive to leave is very low.  

This means for every youth coming to their facility in Kitchener, there are several more who stay in Cambridge, on the streets, on a couch, or in a compromising situation.

“We’ll get a call from the Bridges Shelter saying they have a youth that needs a bed. Oftentimes, they will refuse the bed in Kitchener and the Bridges will have to make an exception and let them stay among the adults,” said Bell. 

“This is not an ideal situation as you don’t typically want youths bunking with adults.” 

Some of the children coming into the shelter system have been dealing with violence, drugs and trauma. Bell thinks these children might not find rooming with adults as the most comfortable and safe option.

Wayne Paddick is the executive director at the Bridges and shares the same opinion as Bell. He has been urging the region to open up different shelters to meet the needs of the community. 

"It doesn't make sense to have a child bunking with people who are 40 and 50 years old. We need to make spaces where everyone feels safe," Paddick said.

Regional councillor for Cambridge, Pam Wolf,  has personally seen young adults taking up residence in the encampments at 150 Main St. and thinks if there were other options for them, they wouldn't be in a tent in a parking lot.

While Wolf confirms there is no room in the budget, she points to $9 million in cuts from the provincial government, making projects like these next to impossible.

"I agree there needs to be a safe place for youth in the Cambridge area, because right now you're seeing them end up in encampments and that is no good at all," Wolf said. "I am going over the region's budget now and there is not much room with funding."

She wants to see a new shelter specifically designated for the city's youth and is looking to put the issue at the top of the list. 

"Even if it was 8 to 10 beds in a house, the region needs to bring shelter options for some of the most vulnerable members of our society," she added. 

OneRoof has taken in 45 Cambridge youths in three months; that number alone warrants a facility in the city, said Bell.

The need for a youth shelter in the city grows every day as more children are finding themselves out of their homes in precarious living situations. 

Bell explains why the number of the precariously housed youths is so difficult to gauge.

“They are often referred to as 'hidden homeless', because they can sleep on couches, at a friend's house and conceal their issues,” she said. “My worry is what are they doing to secure this housing, what do they have to endure just to sleep in a warm place.” 

There have been many instances where someone accessing their services will detail to Bell the type of things they have had to do in order to sleep on a couch or in a room. This could be selling drugs, committing sexual acts or crimes to try and win over the person lending them the space. 

“We need to get ahead of this issue while we can, we need to give children in Cambridge a viable option” said Bell. “We need adequate funding be given to youth homelessness, because if we don't, the youth are going to become the homeless adults of tomorrow."

OneRoof plans to keep fighting for a space in Cambridge and has gained the support of a few regional councillors and are meeting with Cambridge council members in the coming months.

Wolf said she is also meeting with Kitchener/Cambridge MPP Jess Dixon at the end of the month and plans to bring up the provincial funding cuts and the need for basic shelters for the city's youth. 

“One youth on the street is one too many and that includes the streets of Cambridge," said Bell. 

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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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