Leave no one behind

Pandemic became an opportunity to help the homeless in Waterloo Region


""We expect truthfulness and integrity in all that we do. We make responsible use of our physical and human resources as we respond to new priorities in a changing world.  - From the Faculty’s Strategic Plan 2020-25

Here’s how one alumnus is living this value:

As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jessica Bondy had an enormous problem on her hands.

As director of housing at House of Friendship, a social service agency that serves thousands of people in need, including the homeless, Bondy (MA ’13, Recreation and Leisure Studies; BA ’08, Recreation and Business & Therapeutic Recreation) knew the homeless men at the Charles St. Men’s Shelter could not stay there.

Jessica Bondy.Nor could they be left on the streets.

The homeless population, already vulnerable to a myriad of health problems from chronically living on the streets, would be utterly devastated if the virus hit a dormitory-style emergency shelter where social distancing was simply not possible.

House of Friendship quickly rose to the challenge. Thanks to a hotel partner (the Radisson Hotel Kitchener Waterloo), they were able to move the 51 men who normally use the emergency shelter into the hotel where they each share a room with one other man. They also expanded to serve other homeless men as well. “We almost doubled our numbers and now are supporting 97 men at the hotel,” she says.

Better still, House of Friendship had already partnered with the Inner-City Health Alliance in 2019 to launch the ShelterCare vision, providing on-site medical care and help related to mental health, substance abuse and other issues. Now, that ShelterCare program is being piloted at the hotel and can provide even more help, because the men are in more stable living conditions.

To Bondy, this is what integrity looks like: A community that leaves no one behind, not even those at the margins and not even in a pandemic.

“When I think of integrity, I think of wholeness and completeness,” Bondy says. “There will always be someone who requires shelter in our community. But what I think it means to have integrity as a community is to get people who are homeless back on their feet quickly and living a life where they can belong and can thrive.”

The more dignified way

The hotel accommodation meant the men could rest well, instead of having to check out in the morning. They could shower when they wanted to. A level of dignity and autonomy was gained that wasn’t possible before. The ShelterCare prototype made a huge difference. Physical conditions, such as skin issues, were being treated. Mental health and medications were being better managed on site and referrals to addiction services are higher than ever before.

“What we are seeing is that the men are more motivated. Prior to this, stable housing seemed too big of a step, but now, they are seeing it as something that they can do,” says Bondy, who hopes the funding can be found to make these changes permanent. “I do think this is the more cost-effective way of supporting people, and it is certainly the more dignified way.”

House of Friendship also runs the permanent supportive and affordable housing for low-income individuals at Charles Village and Eby Village. As housing director, Bondy’s goal is to move people from homelessness into stable, permanent housing. That can take various forms, from living with family or friends, to getting work and managing rent in an affordable housing unit.

But for homeless individuals, that can be a long and winding road. “It’s not necessarily a straight trajectory to get them from homelessness to permanent housing,” Bondy says.

Barn-raisers through and through

Bondy never imagined her Applied Health Sciences background being put to use in quite this way, but says she is grateful for the knowledge and problem-solving skills that have been very applicable in her new role.

Bondy worked at the University of Waterloo for about a decade prior to joining the House of Friendship. She worked in student housing and then in student transition at the student success office.

But after her father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away while she was on maternity leave following the birth of her daughter, she began to reflect more deeply about the non-profit sector and how she might give back to the larger community.

In 2018, she was offered a job as supportive housing manager at House of Friendship and later that year, she became housing director there. 

It was a big shift to go from helping university students, whose lives are filled with promise, to the homeless, who have had lives of extreme trauma and pain. But Bondy says it is a privilege to work with these homeless men. “They do not have much to hide behind,” she says. “It is life-changing work.”

Bondy says Waterloo Region is the kind of integrity-rich community where that work can be successful.

“We are barn-raisers through and through. We find creative and innovative solutions and we bring people together from different sectors to solve wickedly hard problems. I think housing and homelessness is the next wicked problem that we need to solve here in Waterloo Region. That is what a community with integrity would do.”