University accused of targeting homeless with new gates at Kitchener social work campus

·3 min read

KITCHENER — Wilfrid Laurier University’s school of social work has installed gates blocking stairwells to an entrance at their Kitchener campus, a move that social work students and urban planners say is hostile and targets the homeless.

Judah Oudshoorn, PhD candidate of social work at Laurier, said this move was a backward decision.

“Social work is supposed to be about walking alongside people who are struggling and standing up and speaking out against injustice. We should be inviting people who are street-involved into the building, not shutting people out.”

Matt Rodrigues, urban planner and Downtown Kitchener resident, said “gates and other physical barriers tell us who is welcome and how to behave in a space.”

With the faculty’s proximity to social services like the Consumption Treatment Services site, St. John’s Kitchen, and the YWCA, Jessica Hutchison, PhD social work student, said that it was clear who the gates are meant to keep out.

“People who use drugs or are homeless are often seen as risky or dangerous rather than those in need of care, compassion, and support. This is amplified when the person is Indigenous, Black, or a person of colour,” Hutchison said.

Laura Coakley, a master of social work student at Laurier, said the new barriers no longer mark the faculty as space for temporary refuge. The blustery winds and snowfall, severe enough for Kitchener, Cambridge, and Waterloo to declare snow events this past Tues (Dec. 1), foreshadow hardships for street-involved and unhoused people across the Region this winter/spring.

The Out of the Cold sites that ran out of churches were shuttered years ago; only two overflow shelters remain in Kitchener and in Cambridge. Despite overwhelming evidence linking homelessness to adverse health outcomes, chronic health issues, and early death, local data on homeless deaths is not collected.

Nearly 50 Laurier social work students wrote and signed a letter condemning the faculty’s lack of consultation with students and the wider community in this decision to set up barriers.

Dawn Buzza, dean of the faculty of social work, wrote in an email that she acknowledged that conversations to explore all options should have happened before the gates were installed, but that she is “committed to engaging with our community going forward in order to consider solutions that both address safety concerns while also treating the broader community with dignity and respect.”

Angry, ashamed, and disappointed, Oudshoorn said that he and many of his classmates feel the gates reflect poorly on the faculty and on the entire field.

“It says that social work is not for all people. It says to those who were trying to shelter under the doorway that they do not belong … that we have bought into the idea that property is more important than people.”

Oudshoorn said that instead of making communities safer, gates “divide the world into deserving and undeserving of human care. And that mentality and its physical barriers make our communities less safe. I don’t think students knew they needed protection until the fences came up. Whoever is sleeping under the doorway needs a safe place to shelter, that’s who needs protection and care.”

Fitsum Areguy’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Email fareguy@therecord.com Twitter @fitsumareguy, Waterloo Region Record