Gimme shelter, gimme empathy

After it cleared a homeless encampment in Kitchener, the Region of Waterloo said, “This is not who we are.” So where is its compassion towards vulnerable citizens?

Nigel Gordijk delegated at the Region’s 2022 Plan and Budget Public Input meeting on December 8th. This is the transcript of his presentation.

Like many other residents in the region, I was shocked and heartbroken to witness the events of November 26, when Regional staff cleared an encampment of people who were living in tents near Charles and Stirling in Kitchener.

A Caterpillar backhoe loader, which was designed for construction, was used to destroy the homes and belongings of vulnerable citizens.

It’s not just the method of the clearance that bothered me; it was the idea that someone in a position of authority thought it was acceptable to try and erase these people who were offending our view.

(Backhoe loader tearing down the homeless encampment at Charles Street/Stirling Avenue in Kitchener. Video by The Record)

A statement attributed to the CAO said that the Region is conducting a review of the encampment clearance process. An internal process review will reveal the chain of decisions that led to this destruction, but it won’t explain why those choices were even considered. That is a matter of culture, and it’s something I believe should be explored externally.

I’ve read messages of shock and apology from some members of council and its most senior member of staff, but those were directed at people like me, who have access to social and traditional news media, even though I’m not the one who deserves an apology. Have any council members or senior staff spoken to the people who suffered the indignity of having their belongings destroyed? Has anyone apologized to them?

Two days after the demolition, I joined 200 fellow citizens at a protest nearby, where we showed our support for the people who had lived there, as well as others who are experiencing homelessness. We heard from people who have dealt with that experience themselves, as well as the mother of one of the men who was removed from the encampment. I imagine that all of you on council are like me, and you’ve never had to consider a life on the street.

After the protest ended, I walked from Charles Street to downtown Kitchener. I passed THEMUSEUM on King, where a celebration of The Rolling Stones, a band from 3,500 miles away, has just opened. The UNZIPPED exhibition includes, and I’m quoting from its website, “an immersive realistic reconstruction of their Chelsea flat.” In other words, one of the exhibits is an artificial apartment.

Fifty-two years ago, The Stones sang, “If I don’t get some shelter, I’m going to fade away.” A few weeks after council chose to give financial support to this exhibition, the Region also decided the solution to a homeless encampment was to erase it.

This is a budget meeting, and I’ve been talking about the culture of this organization, but that culture affects the financial choices you’re making.

Perhaps I’m being unfair by criticizing the Region, as if you are somehow separate from us, the public. While you are our leaders, the decisions you make reflect our priorities as a community. You are us.

When a decision is made to fund an increasingly bloated police budget, rather than adequately support initiatives that would reduce crime, we end up criminalizing our less fortunate citizens who would benefit from those supports. As other delegations have pointed out, that is counter-intuitive. It costs more to police crime than it does to prevent it.

After the encampment clearance, the Region’s CAO was quoted as saying, “This is not who we are.”

We are all judged by the actions we take, and not just the words that we say.

If we, the citizens of this region, decide that crushing the possessions of our community’s homeless people is acceptable, then we have lost our way, and we have lost our capacity for empathy. We have chosen to be callous and uncaring. If we consider the Region’s actions on November 26 to be reasonable, then that is who we truly are. We need to change the way that we think.

As you consider the budget that’s before you, I’m asking you to begin a cultural shift by making financial decisions that are backed by empathy and compassion.

I know that some of you on council — if not all of you — are people of faith.

If the events of 2,000 years ago took place right now, right here in our community, would you consider the Region’s actions at Charles Street to be a compassionate response? When someone is seeking shelter, would you reject them from our society by plowing them out of the way?

Recording of the Plan and Budget Public Input Meeting on December 8th. Nigel Gordijk’s delegation begins at 1:06:17.

Nigel Gordijk serves his clients as a graphic designer, a social media communicator, and a copywriter. He has lived in New Hamburg since immigrating in 2007, and he is a newspaper reporter for The Wilmot-Tavistock Gazette. Born and raised in London, England, Gordijk is of Chinese and Black heritage. Earlier this year, he discovered that he is only the fourth generation of his family to carry the last name Gordijk, after tracing his father’s ancestors to his enslaved great-great-grandmother, Betje, who lived in Suriname. He tweets using the handle @LoveWilmot.


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