2021 Point in Time Count provides insight into growing issue of homelessness

By Luke Schulz

The Region of Waterloo is providing insight into most recent Point in Time Count on homelessness in the region – a mandated, bi-annual activity contributing “community-level information” as the the scope of the issue both nationally and provincially.

Headed to regional council on Nov. 9, that report painted a somewhat concerning picture when compared to the last count conducted in 2018 – showing a rise in the number of people counted as experiencing any type of homelessness from 333 to 1,085. In addition to valuable insights into informing planning to tackle homelessness as well as increasing public awareness, that report also includes several recommendations from regional staff as a “proposed investment plan”, to be considered by the region's Budget Committee as part of the 2022 Budget. 

Breaking down the findings of the bi-annual count on Tuesday was Chris McEvoy, manager of housing policy and homeless prevention with the Region of Waterloo. According to McEvoy, that count was conducted on Sept. 21 of this year – as he noted that this year's strategy took a different approach compared to previous years in order to ensure a “robust and thorough” count of community members experiencing homelessness. 

“In partnership with community providers and direct service staff, strategic and targeted strategies were used to build on the great connections and relationships that community partners have with community members experiencing homelessness.” said McEvoy. “These strategies included separate and focused approaches to engage participants in services like emergency shelter and drop in spaces, individuals living rough or staying in encampments, as well as community members experiencing 'hidden homelessness' or living in rural communities – as well as community members from Indigenous or racialized communities.”

In mentioning those experiencing “hidden homelessness”, McEvoy clarified that term refers to individuals temporarily living with others without guarantee of continued residency, or the immediate prospect of accessing a permanent housing solution. 

In counting 1,085 individuals experiencing some form of homelessness locally, more than one third identified as “living rough”: either in encampments, on the street, or staying in their vehicle. 335 noted experiencing hidden homelessness, while nearly 200 were in emergency shelter. McEvoy noted that the majority of those counted accessed supports in some way – either through options made available through the region or community partners. 

“The count and numeration of homelessness aligns well with what we see in our shared community database – which is called the Homelessness Individuals and Families Information System or HIFIS.” said McEvoy. “When we look in HIFIS, we see there are about 1,100 individuals with active or open files in HIFIS, who have received report and had their HIFIS files updated within the last six months. What this demonstrates is that the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in our community are well connected to services.”

McEvoy noted that the region acknowledges that there's still plenty of work to be done in the community to provide support to those experiencing homelessness in the region – though he added that, since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 470 individuals have been supported by local service providers to transition into permanent housing. Of those individuals, close to half w ere previously experiencing chronic homelessness, or without a residence for more than six months in the last year / 1.5 years of the last three. 

Of those who were counted during the bi-annual report, over 600 opted to complete a voluntary survey providing insights into their own experiences with homelessness – though it's noted that not all respondents answered every question posed. Those responses showed that over a quarter of respondents first experienced homelessness when they were 16 or younger, with more than half first experiencing homelessness between the ages of 17 to 45.

Furthermore, 15 per cent of those who responded identified themselves as racialized community members, and 17 per cent identified as First Nations or Indigenous. 

When asked for further information as to how the region is supporting those individuals experiencing homelessness, McEvoy said there are a number of interventions, strategies and partnerships in active development – including rental supplements for members of racialized and Indigenous communities announced earlier this year. McEvoy added that the region's Community Advisory Board – an entity that helps invest federal 'Reaching Home' funds intended to ensuring housing stability and transitioning out of homelessness – has Indigenous community members and populations as a key priority group for that funding.

“In partnership with our Community Advisory Board earlier this year, we were able to take new, base funding that we received from the federal government and invest that into Indigenous led and determined services. So through KW Urban Native Wigwam Project, they were the recipient of those funds and we respected their absolute right for self-determination, and are working closely with them to help structure what those programs and services will be… that will meet the goals of the reaching home funding…”

Recommendations paired with the 2021 Point in Time Count include asking the region to collaborate with service providers to explore “alternative options and support” to address systemic barriers in accessing emergency shelter and housing, as well as further affirmation that Waterloo Region providers continue operating a “housing focused and housing first” emergency shelter system – providing support to resolve housing as quickly as possible. Staff have also asked the region to continue a review of its housing wait list policies in order to better address the needs of those experiencing homelessness. 

In addition, staff have proposed a $2.4M dollar investment plan for consideration as part of the 2022 Budget, focused largely on helping those experiencing chronic homelessness to transiton into permanent housing with wrap around supports. Furthermore, staff have asked the region to double its current housing-focused “street outreach services” to help “enhance connections to emergency shelter spaces and services for life stabilization.”

McEvoy also noted that regional staff would like to see an extension of interim housing for “up to 80 individuals” who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness and not accessing the emergency shelter system. According to the report headed to council, that investment would cost an estimated $2,880,000 annually, already included in the preliminary 2022 operating budget for housing services.

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