Local hotel partners with House of Friendship during COVID-19, creating hope and opportunity for homeless men
By: Landon Jennings, UWaterloo United Way Campaign Committee Communications Team
Over the last few months, COVID-19 has affected people’s lives globally – whether that be through adjustments like working from home, losing jobs or income, not being able to hug family and friends, or battling new stresses and anxieties associated with uncertainty. For many, staying indoors and adjusting to a socially distanced life is challenging; but this new normal has disproportionately increased risks for the homeless members of our community.
The usual model of sheltering the homeless is not socially distanced at all: it involves placing several people in an open-air environment, in close proximity to one another, giving them a safe place to sleep and a warm meal to eat. In Waterloo Region alone, we are short 8,000 units of affordable housing, and 70% of our homeless population are navigating mental health or addiction challenges that make stable sheltering a difficult reality.
Knowing that this model would not work during the pandemic, House of Friendship, a local social service agency that provides food, housing, addiction treatment and neighborhood supports for those struggling with poverty or addiction, and an agency who United Way Waterloo Region Communities supports, acted quickly to find dignified shelter for homeless men within our region. Particularly, along with the challenges we face for stable housing within our community, many homeless men were unwell along with experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. This combination made “life on the streets unbearable for their health and wellbeing”, said Jessica Bondy, Director of Housing Services at the House of Friendship.
COVID-19 enables an unexpected pilot project/ShelterCare’s vision comes to life
The stigma around the homeless created difficulty in securing a temporary shelter for one of our most vulnerable populations - yet despite this, House of Friendship was fortunate to partner with a local hotel to provide a 24/7 shelter for homeless men until the end of August 2020.
Within 24-hours of the partnership, 51 men were moved from a shelter unsuitable for pandemic measures into the hotel, creating a more dignified and stable environment from the traditional overnight-only model. Through partnerships, not only has the shelter capacity safely increased to 97, but healthcare is provided onsite daily. A primary care clinic opened from 10am – 3pm seeing 12 participants a day. Staff were also able to develop a COVID-19 isolation floor allowing those experiencing symptoms to be tested and treated. There have been zero COVID positive cases.
For the men staying with us, “the hotel is a place where all their needs are met under one roof”, said Bondy. House of Friendship staff work closely with the men to care for their overall wellbeing ensuring Food, quality sleep, healthcare, recreation activities, community and support are provided. Finally, and most importantly, Shelter staff create a housing plan with the participants, to help get people back on their feet.
As expressed by Bondy, the larger vision of ShelterCare.ca has become a reality through this partnership, as “allowing access to the healthcare they need, and giving love, compassion, and kindness, we can positively change their lives”. For instance, with this model, Bondy mentions that, “we are seeing that people have more hope. They believe that housing is an attainable goal; whereas months ago, pre-COVID-19, it seemed too far.”
A Hopeful future for homeless men within Waterloo Region
In one powerful testimonial, a participant said: “I feel like for the first time in a long time I’m ready to tackle my addictions because, in the conditions of the hotel, I am able to see that I am starting to feel like me. Thanks to the hotel team I realized that I have a life worth living and can do this.”
Several staff have also expressed impact. “I believe the rest, and services at the hotel, gets participants to think about making healthy, alternative choices. Typically, at the shelter, we would have had 5 referrals to residential addiction treatments every 4-6 months whereas now we have had 5 in the last month alone.” Along with this, the model has resulted in a safer work environment for staff, decreased overdoses (and other serious occurrences), reduced incident reports, and increased the overall well-being of participants.
Will we choose the path of saving lives?
As we move towards the last stage of re-opening the economy, the current partnership House of Friendship has for sheltering homeless men will end; taking away the dignified environment that has created hope and began changing the trajectory of many lives. Without funding, they will go back to the old model, of providing overnight shelter, with mats on a floor, and a warm meal, in an open-air environment. Yet, “our community has the opportunity to decide if we go back to the status quo, or if we build upon the ShelterCare model of saving lives [by providing a dignified environment with wrap around supports] where we can engage in healing trauma and help those who are homeless believe they have a life worth living” noted Bondy.
The full circle: How supporting our United Way campaign can help keep this model afloat
When asked what the biggest challenges were, Bondy expressed that “funding is a big problem, there is so much uncertainty of what will happen after August” and “we cannot sustain this effective model without funds.”
Thinking back to our campaign over the last few years, we have been reiterating that ‘every little bit counts’ when it comes to supporting the United Way, as several small donations can lead to huge impacts within the broader community. Last year our campaign dollars helped over 1,500 people living in poverty within our community find shelter, food, and increased their sense of belonging.
It’s incredible and commendable how one local hotel took a chance and gave their space to a segment of our community to create a huge impact. As expressed by Bondy, “if this model can continue to be implemented, the positive effects have shown that we can beat homelessness within our community."
Are you the one who will help end homelessness?