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Region approves first-ever sanctioned encampment site

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The Region of Waterloo council approved a series of measures on Thursday to help ease the growing homelessness crisis, including a first-ever decision to permit an encampment.

“The interim and short-term housing options that are hopefully approved today are explicitly interim because we know they are not the solution to homelessness,” said Region of Waterloo councillor Elizabeth Clarke ahead of the vote. “Someone staying in a shelter is still homeless. Someone staying in encampment is still homeless.”

The updated homelessness response plan was presented at a Community Services Committee Meeting earlier this month, and was unanimously approved by council during a virtual meeting on Thursday.

It has four major components: expanding the transitional housing program, expanding home-based supports to help people find and pay for affordable housing, creating an additional emergency shelter space and permitting an encampment.

“Whether it’s shelter, interim housing, supportive housing, rent subsidies, there are many places where we can intervene and make a significant difference to the system and also to those individuals,” said regional chair Karen Redman.

The issue came to the forefront this summer after dozens of tents popped up on regionally-owned land at the corner of Weber and Victoria Streets in Kitchener.

Several delegates presented to council on Thursday evening. Many praising the plan to address homelessness, while also condemning the region’s efforts to evict those currently living at the Victoria Street encampment.

“The region’s interim response to homelessness as presented to us is great, but without another motion or as long as we currently have our legal action against the encampment, it is all sadly just for show,” said delegate Brooklin Wallis.

The region filed court papers to remove the encampment earlier this month, after a failed attempt to get the group to vacate by June 30.

“There is still a court case looming over the site on Victoria Street which threatens eviction,” said delegate Kevin White. “The criminalization of homelessness continues through this.”

A number of councillors voiced their concerns about how the region is going to pay for this plan. Many hoping that the federal and provincial governments will step in to assist.

“This alone, plus the increase in the police budget that we’re going to have to deal with in 2023 is going to make for a monumental task for taxes for residents in 2023,” said regional councillor Jim Erb. “I support it, but please, province and feds, show some heart – help us out.”

According to a staff report on the plan, the total cost associated with the four strategies would come with a price tag of just over $10.2 million per year, while creating 325 spaces for those living rough.

“Homelessness is a crisis in this community,” said Peter Sweeney, commissioner of community services for the Region of Waterloo. “It’s a crisis across this country.”

Sweeny said he hopes to change the housing crisis across Waterloo region.

Tony Stortz is a former employee at a better tent city in Kitchener, and his organization – Better Street - is working to bring encampments to those facing homelessness across Ontario.

“The biggest challenge has been keeping the people who are living the experience, who are living the life, who are in these encampments at the center of the conversation,” said Storez.

The region said it gathered feedback from those currently living with homelessness and their concerns stretch beyond housing.

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