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Belonging and Safety in Waterloo Region: Online Panel Recap

posted by KWCS Staff

On June 4, 2020 we held the second of three online panel discussions celebrating our 70th anniversary. Our panelists discussed how for most of us, sheltering at home means a safe and comfortable space, but for some members of our community, the challenges are very different. 


You can watch the recorded panel here


Our Executive Director, Rebecca Webb, noted that is not possible to address belonging and safety without addressing the Black Lives Matter protests of the past week. This panel does not address race or racism in our community, but we are profoundly saddened by the ongoing acts of violence against Black people across North America. Anti-Black racism is inherent in many of the systems within which we work and live. We want to acknowledge this and work towards positive change. KW Counselling Services has been in touch with local Black-led organizations including the African Community Wellness Initiative, and we look forward to partnering on projects, and supporting projects at their invitation. Though this discussion will only be able to scratch the surface of belonging and safety in our community, we hope it is a beginning to the conversation.

It was recently reported that at least nine women and girls had been killed in domestic homicides in Canada between April 1st and May 4th. Jennifer Hutton, Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region spoke to what she had been seeing locally and pointed out that home is not safe for everyone. Rather it can become more unsafe during a pandemic because women might be home isolating with an abusive partner. COVID-19 itself can also be used against women for control and monitoring. Globally, domestic violence rates are going up and escalating. As a shelter, Women’s Crisis Services has 90 beds and they are all typically full, but since the pandemic began their numbers are at 50% or 60% of capacity. Even their call volume has decreased. If a woman is isolated with an abusive partner she may not be able to safely make that call.

They have added a new online chat feature to their website, and Jennifer shared that a woman recently came to the shelter after having reached out through this tool. Shelters have been open throughout the pandemic. Staff are wearing PPE and conducting screenings to ensure everyone is safe. Obviously, it is not an easy time for women to be staying in shelters. They have to isolate for a time to ensure safety. They are fortunate to have single bedrooms with their own washrooms.

There are a number of barriers for women to make the decision to leave an abusive relationship. The pandemic has added a new layer to this. The good news is, they are starting to see their numbers increase. This is good because women are accessing the help they need. They have slowly been re-adding the services of their music therapist and mental health expert. Jennifer noted that we have a fantastic community and there has been a great sense of people looking out for one another. This has been really helpful.


Connect with Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region:


Sara Casselman, Executive Director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region spoke about a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report that rated Waterloo Region the least safe major urban centre in Canada for women. This report looks at gender equity. One factor is personal safety or experiences of personal violence, and this report is based mostly on police reports. It is a really concerning issue in our community. The argument could be made that higher police stats are a good thing because it means more people are reporting. We’ve seen a cultural shift from five years ago. Survivors are speaking out: from celebrities, to members of the military, to people on college campuses. And then the #MeToo movement began and SASC was flooded.

Five years ago, having 40 survivors on their waiting list was very concerning. Now they have 140 survivors waiting on the list. Whether Waterloo Region is actually the least safe or not doesn’t really matter. It is a crisis and it’s time for our community to take action.

Sara noted that during wars, disasters, and pandemics violence against women always increases. Sometimes, it’s not until the aftermath that sexual violence comes to light. Once the pandemic is over, the need will be greater than it was before. We really need the community to support women’s organizations at this time.


Connect with Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region:


Alice Maguire, Clinical Supervisor & Public Educator at Sanguen Health Centre, spoke about the specific challenges facing people who use substances during this time. Like with many sectors of society, COVID is heightening the barriers faced by folks who use substances. Stigma, and a lack of connection has meant a heightened overdose risk. People who used drugs before the pandemic were already facing the opioid crisis. Now we’re seeing a necessary shifting of service from in person supports to virtual. When someone is not housed, they can’t easily access those online supports. When we are able to connect in person, we’re having to wear masks. The person who’s smile you used to count on, you can no longer see. It’s harder to feel love and connection.

COVID has meant interruptions in the drug supply, and the supply that is available is more toxic. We’re seeing high numbers of overdoses. Before the pandemic, things were actually improving and now they are worse. Organizations mobilized really quickly to house people who were living in poverty but a negative impact is that people aren’t housed downtown where most safe consumption services are located. There are fewer folks coming to use safely. Also, the strategies to protect from COVID are directly contradictory to the helpful guidelines for drug use. People are more likely to have a fatal overdose when they are isolated.


Connect with Sanguen Health Centre:


Sara Casselman spoke as a member of the LGBTQ2+ community about the unique challenges facing LGBTQ2+ youth at this time. There are lots of youth who are in unsafe, unsupported homes so we need to embrace youth and make sure they have community care. Youth in unsafe homes are so vulnerable. There is a high risk of suicide. It’s crucial to have services that see them, and recognize them. This is very challenging to do with physical distancing. Programs either don’t exist or are only happening virtually. As a community we need to be intentional about messaging for queer youth: This time will pass, and eventually you’ll be in a safe place, experiencing joy and comfort and security. It’s important for members of the community to keep an eye out. You might share messages on social media letting youth know that you are a safe person to connect with.

Alice Maguire added that she worked with KW Counselling Services’ OK2BME program for a number of years. She noted that connection with peers as a young person is so important, and also connection with queer adult role models. June is Pride month and for some people, this would have been their first Pride. For some youth, their school’s GSA or OK2BME groups, are the only place they can be themselves. There are youth who dread summer because it forces them back in the closet. Fortunately, many youth are tech savvy and are connecting with each other virtually, but there are homes where this is policed and it’s unsafe to do so.

Sara added that school boards have a role to play in the messages they are putting out. We need to encourage school boards to make sure their spaces are safe, celebratory and inclusive.


Connect with OK2BME:


Jessica Bondy, Housing Services Director at House of Friendship, spoke to the challenges facing people who are experiencing homelessness at this time. COVID has been challenging. How can you “shelter in place” when you don’t have a home, or you’re staying in a shelter but are asked to leave at 9am and not return until dinner time? House of Friendship is supporting participants who are experiencing significant challenge and trauma. Most have lived very complex lives, and many are navigating addictions, mental illness, and physical health challenges. The shut down of community meal programs means there’s often no place to belong during the day.

A positive impact is that shelter and housing providers have been able to evaluate and focus on needs. House of Friendship has been able to increase their capacity from sheltering 51 men to 80 men. They have also been able to extend their hours to offer 24/7 shelter for the first time ever in our community. This is thanks to a “hotel angel” that has partnered with them to help create an incredible place where participants can be welcomed and safe, connected to resources and a staff team that care about their well-being and health.

In this new space, House of Friendship has been able to be nimble and creative in solving problems. They have been working on ways to integrate healthcare and sheltering. You can read more at In this new location, they have a primary care team on site five days per week, giving participants unprecedented access to healthcare. People are feeling like themselves, getting hope, and feeling rested. One participant said, "I feel like for the first time in a long time I am ready to tackle my addiction. Because of the conditions at the hotel I've been able to see a healthcare provider for the first time in over five years. I'm sleeping, really sleeping and I'm starting to feel like me. Thanks to the shelter team I've realized that I can have a life worth living and that I can do this."

House of Friendship is excited to bring partnerships together and re-vision what shelter looks like in our community. They are excited about the benefits that COVID has made possible for this population, and are dreaming about how things might improve going forward.


Connect with House of Friendship:


Ann Bilodeau, Executive Director of KW Habilitation, spoke about how having to close all of its day support programs during the pandemic has affected the families they serve. Some people with developmental disabilities do not understand COVID. They really want to leave sites and be out and about. Drugs, human trafficking, and abuse have all been dangers that KW Habilitation is staying engaged to battle. They have been available to teach and train.

Those individuals able to go into inclusive living sites are receiving the support they need. There are unique concerns for people who are on their own at home. Isolation is a huge challenge. Many people don’t have cell phones or computers or wi-fi. Many families have aging parents who don’t understand or aren’t comfortable using these technologies. KW Habilitation has provided it wherever possible, and wherever people were willing to learn.

The real challenge is figuring out what the new normal will be. KW Habilitation has done its best to make connections within the Public Health guidelines, but it’s not possible to know if people in these families may have had COVID.  They are maintaining communication on the phone, or by knocking on doors. They encourage people to check in on their vulnerable neighbours.

Like other organizations, KW Habilitation has flipped things quickly. Their 99 Ottawa building has turned into a major food hub. They prepare meals for five days and deliver them on a Monday. They are working to ensure people have what they need.

Ann pointed out that there have been some “silver lining” experiences. In some ways, they have jumped forward by a decade in a single weekend. Grandparents have been forced to learn to use technology in order to stay connected with grandchildren. We can all ask ourselves what we have learned from this tragedy. What efficiencies are there? What will we have learned when this is done? We can all help one another in these difficult times, but we can also do that moving forward.


Connect with KW Habilitation:


A viewer asked what people can do to help shelters. Jessica noted that the real goal of shelters is to one day close their doors. We want to work towards housing people, and House of Friendship has been working diligently as an advocate for supportive housing. People can get involved by visiting their website. Community members are able to send notes of encouragement to participants. A simple thing we can do is treat homeless folks with kindness when we meet them. Help them feel connected, supported, and like they belong. People can also help by donating to a number of amazing organizations in our community, and by sharing the things we’ve talked about today.

A viewer asked what supports were available to people on SASC’s waiting list. Sara noted that their 24-hour support line has doubled its capacity. There are many groups and workshops happening virtually. You can find them on the website. Survivors are dealing with the same challenges that we all are at this time, but when you’ve had an experience of trauma it can make things worse. You can help by referring survivors to the services they need.

Ann spoke to the challenges of Long term care facilities, noting that congregate care has been horrible during COVID. She believes there will be systemic changes as a result of these experiences. Though housing people together may be the most economical solution, it is not the best. We will need to focus on affordable housing and moving people into smaller settings. The value of workers is essential and they have been devalued. Ann hopes that the government continues to recognize these essential workers after the pandemic.

Jessica echoed Ann’s sentiments. For example, House of Friendship is only 50% funded. The rest comes from donations. There will have to be some changes. We have a huge opportunity to learn from past mistakes and create really innovative, trauma-informed ways to move forward. Waterloo Region is so innovative, we can definitely do it.


Rebecca thanked everyone for joining us and noted that each topic we touched on could have filled its own panel. Rebecca requested that people please participate in this discussion. Talk about it with the people in your networks, and connect with some of the organizations you heard about tonight.

We have a shared responsibility for one another. We hope this panel has brought some awareness to the challenges being faced by our neighbours. As things continue to evolve, our organizations need the community’s help to design the “new normal”. All of the organizations we heard from tonight are doing exceptional work and will need help in different ways. Please do stay connected with them.


KWCS Belonging and Safety 2020 Promotion poster with QR code