Beyond the pandemic, the region is facing three epidemics, according to The AIDS Committee Of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo & Area (ACCKWA) executive director, Ruth Cameron.
“We're dealing with HIV, which is still ongoing. We have over 800 new infections in Ontario every year. We're also dealing with the opioid overdose epidemic; in our region between 2019 and 2020, fatal overdoses have increased 58 per cent. And then we're dealing with homelessness. And we've seen a tripling of homelessness related to our homeless counts in Waterloo Region,” Cameron said.
She believes the need for supports grew during the pandemic because of increased evictions and encampments being moved around so much, as well as the widening inequality gap.
Last week, a protest was held after the city removed a homeless encampment. At that protest, donations were collected for ACCKWA. Although their focus is largely on HIV and harm reduction, Cameron says working with “unhoused” people falls into their line of work.
“We do harm reduction related outreach to homeless encampments, where some of them are people who use opioids. So we are interested in avoiding overdoses, and preventing fatal overdoses. But also we're interested in reducing the transmission of things like HIV and hepatitis C through injection drug use. So that's where our focus and our ability to do outreach has really grown,” she said.
Over the course of the pandemic, they have gone from having one person doing that outreach to three, “because the need was always there, but it became even more intense during the pandemic.”
They also offer drop-in support in Cambridge, where they regularly engage with 130 unhoused individuals.
With just 17 staff members and around 60 volunteers, their services include three support programs, five different prevention programs, as well as a number of clinics. They focus on hiring individuals from the communities that are most vulnerable when it comes to HIV-related issues, as well as people with lived experience or those who are still in recovery from substance use.
“So our focus is really about HIV prevention and support, as well as addressing the opioid epidemic and overdose,” she said. “What we want to do is work towards a future where new HIV infections and opioid overdoses are rare. And the communities that are living with HIV, and individuals from the communities that are most vulnerable to HIV are included and welcomed in our community and don't experience stigma.”
Regarding the encampments being moved, Cameron says that “when you have people who are already vulnerable, and precarious and on the edge, and now they’re living in an encampment with the individuals, clothing, and equipment that keeps them safe from the elements, and the Naloxone that can reverse a potentially fatal overdose, and all of that gets destroyed, you’re creating a lot of vulnerability.”
She says that they are hoping local municipalities will decide to allow encampments to remain in one place during the winter, which will keep people “secure in their networks of folks that look out for each other.”
Additionally, letting them stay in one place makes it easier for organizations like ACCKWA to find the people who need help and give them support.
Cameron says she and her team want ongoing support for people living with HIV.
“We are seeing a widening inequality gap, we have a really strong need for donations to our food security program for people living with HIV. So that's one thing that people can help support us with.”
The second item she says community members can help with is signing a petition to end encampment and evictions in the region.
“We need really strong support for that. I think there's a real willingness from our regional government, our politicians, and our community, to end encampment evictions, and find multiple locations across the region where the administration has agreed that it is okay for people to have their encampments for the winter, so that they aren't moved and more risk is created for the homeless.”
The petition can be signed here.
“I just think that right now, there's just a wonderful opportunity to think about where we want our dollars to be best used. And we know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So let's put our dollars toward caring for people and preventing them from being in the most marginalized situations in the first place.”