As I made my way towards St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church located in the heart of downtown Kitchener, I found myself thinking about the handful of times I had been there.
Just under six years ago, I briefly volunteered for Out of the Cold (OOTC), a programme that feeds, provides friendship, and ultimately warms the homeless community in Kitchener-Waterloo (KW) annually from November to April.
Aside from doing some research on how the program has changed over the past year, I didn’t really know what to expect going into it this time. Based on what has been previously reported, I knew that out of the eleven churches that participated annually, three of them had dropped out of the program over the last year.
Walking through the corridor and into the hall, I was taken aback at the lack of guests – there were no more than a dozen. When I was a volunteer, there were 70 to 80 guests for dinner each night.
Turns out, the church drop out rate was much worse than I had thought. Not three churches had dropped out last year – nine did. But wouldn’t fewer participating churches mean more guests?
As I approached the small group, I felt the intimidation disappear immediately as the guests brightly welcomed me in. Curious as to who I was, many of them wanted to know what I was doing and how they could get involved.
It was 8 p.m. by now and guests were snacking on popcorn and homemade cookies while drinking coffee or Coca Cola.
For entertainment, Scrabble boards and decks of cards were put out and in the corner was a television set accompanied by boxes of VHS movies. Playing was a John Wayne flick – a popular choice amongst the guests who were mostly over the age of 40.
There were a few younger guests, but after a quick nap in a sleeping bag on the floor, the younger couple left in a little quarrel.
Aside from some of the guests having a mental illness, the group was very civil and non-threatening. While some of the individuals would yell out obscenities, others seemed more timid. Each of the guests had their own quirks and stories to tell – all of which were very interesting.
Heidi F. with her kind face and soft endearing nature comes to OOTC for the “five F’s,” food, fellowship, friends, fun and faith.
“I like to come when there’s peace and harmony,” she says. “When there’s war and upheaval it ruins my night.”
Violence and substance abuse was one of the main reasons why the churches began dropping out of the program. The volunteers were just simply not trained to handle such things.
“It’s an eighth of the people now,” says Debbie E., a guest who’s attended the OOTC program for eight years now.
Debbie says she had a beautiful upbringing filled with good memories and loving parents. Everything was going right for her until she was involved in a workplace accident where she lost her finger while operating machinery she wasn’t properly trained for. Unable to work and suffering the loss of her mother who also passed that same year, Debbie fell further into a downward spiral. In an attempt to make a change in her life and move out West, she ran out of money and was forced to come back.
Explaining her past brought tears to Debbie’s eyes. She took breaks between explaining her story to glance down at her hands. It was evident that the year she began attending OOTC was easily one of the worst years of her life.
“When a person is homeless it’s taxing because you take everything with you,” she says. “You get so tired and there’s no comfort.”
Dale Miller, a 43-year-old guest, who also goes by dog or Doug when the police are around, has been attending OOTC for the same eight years Debbie has. He has lost eight friends over the past month, most of them from drugs and exposure or a mix of both.
“You sleep in the snow banks or you find a parking garage where there’s some heat,” he says. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t cry. I haven’t seen my kids in over ten years.”
Emergency Status refers to anyone who is living on the streets without anywhere to call home. Miller has been on Emergency Status several times in the past, but he now boards in a private residence.
“It’s like living in a dog house,” says Miller.
He now shares a kitchen and bathroom with at least three other people. Often times, you cannot leave anything out in the common area without fear of having it stolen or tampered with.
“It’s hard to find a safe place,” says Debbie, who has also experienced this. “They are filled with thieves, drug addicts, and bodily fluids.”
The basic welfare calculation for a single adult in Ontario is $656 allowance a month. If your rent is $500 a month, this means you only get about $150 a month to spend on food, clothing, and necessities.
With this being a concern, the Region of Waterloo is stepping in to change the housing response to homelessness.
In their October meeting, the Region of Waterloo Employment and Income Support Community Advisory Committee discussed coordinating a housing response to the OOTC changes made over the last year.
The committee’s goal is to end homelessness and give individuals the opportunity to have long-term housing. Many local programs including Supportive Housing of Waterloo (SHOW) joined to help.
SHOW, now running in their fourth year, has been one of the many places that have provided housing units to the homeless community. The building offers apartments for 30 single people who get their own bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and living room area.
This is different from the types of places Miller and Debbie have stayed in. Due to these housing units often having long wait lists, the homeless are left to use their welfare to rent boarding houses from negligent landlords.
SHOW tenants receive wellness checks once a day by a staff member making contact with them. For others, they require an apartment inspection for cleanliness.
With most of the tenants being between the age of 25 and 68 and male, the expectation is that they can live there as long as they are paying their rent and abiding by the safety rules.
“Out of the cold is not a solution, it’s a band-aid,” says Cathie Stewart Savage, office administrator at SHOW and coordinator at Out of the Cold since 1999.
As of November, 133 people have been redirected into formal shelters. This includes the transitional shelter led by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) that will run from November until May.
This overnight shelter is open seven nights a week from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. but does not provide meals.
This is where St. John’s Kitchen comes in. They provide up to 300 meals a day for anyone who shows up and they are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Then Ray of Hope is the dinner solution for the 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. gap between St. John’s Kitchen and the YWCA.
At OOTC today, there’s less than two-dozen who use the overnight stay on Friday night at First United Church.
“It’s very different now,” says Mallory Keller, an OOTC volunteer for four years now. “You’re left wondering where everyone is.”
The coordinators at OOTC believe that the previous guests either found housing, died, or are still moving from shelter to soup kitchen every day.
Judy Zieske, OOTC coordinator at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, says some individuals are too shy to apply for government services because they don’t like to give their real name. But after living off the shelter system for so long, people begin to forget how to do everyday mundane tasks.
“They often become out of touch with the world,” says Savage, who has seen new tenants at SHOW that don’t know how to operate a television.
She also believes the OOTC overnight portion is soon to be gone.
With the KW Region funding the transitional shelter, Savage says the Region is supposed to have a permanent solution by May when it closes.
Since the Kitchener opening in February 1999, OOTC has served thousands of individuals from all walks of life.
Currently, they still have their dinner and games at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church on Wednesday and the overnight stay at First United Church where they get sloppy Joes for dinner and a bagged lunch and toiletry bag when they depart in the morning.