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Region considers new homeless strategy which could include region-run encampments

The Community Services Committee has voted to forward a pair of motions aimed at ending homelessness locally but which could also include what it calls a 'managed hybrid shelter/outdoor model'
A Better Tent City
A Better Tent City. Supplied photo from Jeff Wilmer

The Region of Waterloo says it wants to end homelessness.

The region's Community Services Committee has voted to forward a pair of motions with that goal in mind, including the development of a 'Homelessness Master Plan' detailing strategies and resources needed to make it happen.

The motions though also include a number of other, shorter-term options including expanding transitional housing, home-based supports, and the emergency shelter program. They also include an option for what the region is calling a 'managed hybrid shelter/outdoor model' -- essentially, a region-run encampment.

"We envision a scenario where we would have a community partner willing to staff and provide the services required and the amenities required on the site," said Peter Sweeney, Commissioner of Community Services at the Region of Waterloo. "Much like we would in any other partnership, the difference here is rather than in a traditional building, people would be temporarily living in alternative structures that could include tents, trailers, or small structures."

That description, conjuring images of what could look similar to 'A Better Tent City' and region staff say it would also help reduce the criminalization of area homeless.

That said, Sweeney did make a point to note measures like this are not meant to last forever.

"We have to ensure that any temporary, interim solution is just that," he said. "So that we do not run into the unintended consequence of having temporary solutions that become long-term in nature."

There are also questions about cost with Sweeney suggesting the region would be looking for quite a bit of stakeholder buy-in, including from the provincial and federal levels of government.

"This will not be solved overnight, we don't have a magical site and a big bag of cash that we're just waiting to pull out," Sweeney said. "When I talk about all-of-community and all-of-government, we mean that."

Several councillors did also raise concern over the region being forced to 'backstop' the province and said they would be looking for support from other municipalities at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario annual conference later this month in calling on the province to comit more of its own resources to help cities tackle issues linked to homelessness and housing.

A couple also questioned region staff as to whether offering a region-run encampment-like option may potentially also further worsen the situation locally by acting as a draw for those experiencing homelessness in other near-by communities.

"If we find a way to eliminate and solve the issue of chronic homelessness in this community, other folks in positions of influence and authority and those with lived-experience would potentially look at what we're doing here as a learning [experience] just as we're learning from other communities as well," answered Sweeney, but adding that was a potential issue which had also been raised by regional staff.

In the end though, Sweeney said there is no option left but to seek new solutions.

"We have a thousand people who are experiencing homelessness [in the Region of Waterloo], half of whom are experiencing chronic homelessness," he said. "So unless we change something we should expect that to continue."

The proposals are due to return to council on August 18 at 5 p.m. 

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