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Member Association Spotlight: “Supportive housing is so much more than just housing- It is a community and a space for healing” said Jennifer Breaton, CEO of the YW Kitchener-Waterloo

Published on 07/02/2024 by YWCA Canada

Read: 5min 

As a part of our ongoing housing series, YWCA Canada spoke to Jennifer Breaton, CEO of YW Kitchener-Waterloo. Serving in the Region of Kitchener-Waterloo with under a million individuals, the YW cumulates several programs and projects that support women, girls, gender-diverse people, and their families. In this interview, we spoke about YW Kitchener-Waterloo’s programs, their advocacy works, and the significant impact of supportive and affordable housing through the lens of homelessness.    


Q: Can you tell us a bit more about YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo?  

A: With over a century of dedication to women and their families, the YW Kitchener Waterloo serves the community as one of the region’s largest non-profit organizations. We are the only agency in Waterloo Region solely dedicated to serving women and their families. In 2022, we served over 1600 women and children across multiple services and programs.   We operate a 66 bed emergency shelter and 4 supportive housing buildings offering a place to call home for more than 100 women and their children. The first one has been open for over 20 years! In May 2022, the YW opened its supportive housing complex supporting 41 women. The second building, located nearby, Block Line-2, opened last spring to support families experiencing homelessness through deeply affordable housing.  

The YW also provides many different programs that support the economic independence of women, gender diverse folks and families. One of those programs is early childhood education. The YW KW operates four distinct childcare centers, before and after school programs, and youth programming focusing on gender-diverse youth and their communities. We have an incredible employment and training department offering innovative programming targeted for newcomer women through social enterprise, thrift stores, and digital skills and entrepreneurship skill-building initiatives.   


Q: How do you face the gendered housing crisis at your level? 

A: As in other municipalities and every major city across Canada, affordable housing is the most predominant issue that we are all facing. It is a perfect storm. The YWCA has long been the champions of deeply affordable housing to support vulnerable women and children, and we know that we are needed now more than ever.  

We started with our first supportive housing unit, supporting around 50 women to have a foundation to call home. We wanted to make more. We decided to apply for housing initiatives funding and were successful. 

It is remarkable to see the evolution of the Block Line-2 from the moment when we laid the initial foundation to when we opened the doors – it was only 12 months. Within a year, we were able to open the door to 41 women who were living in chronic homelessness from our emergency shelter and give them a place to call home. Supportive housing is much more than simply housing. This fundamental block, once we have stability, can make it easy to start the next series of steps. In this same lens, community partnerships support Block Line in bringing physical healthcare, mental healthcare, and art therapy that inevitably supports women. These are exciting projects. 


Q: Are there any key strategies implemented to achieve its objectives?  

A: The key factor contributing to our success and the swift conclusion of housing initiatives was a collaborative endeavor involving YW Kitchener-Waterloo and various government levels. YW Kitchener-Waterloo played a crucial role in advancing Rapid Housing initiatives in conjunction with the region and its municipalities, fostering further development. 

The land was donated by the City of Kitchener. It is an incredible partnership. This is a perfect example of how mobilization and partnership can be the key strategies for successful projects. 


Q: I heard that YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo is also advocating a lot at their level. Can you share with us one of your works?  

A: Our advocacy department is doing such great work. They are amplifying the voices of women and gender diverse folks that we support through various actions. 

One of the most important subjects we focused on the last year was a partnership with the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW), a local group in our area along with Community Justice Initiatives (CJI). We published a report called Project Willow which focuses on sharing the voices of women who have experienced homelessness with violence. Following the launch, our report caught the attention of our local politicians who helped to extend services. It helped focus an understanding on what a safe emergency space for women looks like and why it is unsafe for women to share space with  men experiencing homelessness .   

Also, as we’ve seen in the news in June 2023, a hate-motivated attack was perpetrated at the University of Waterloo during a Gender and social justice class. It is imperative that we amplify the voices of women and gender-diverse folks in our community now more than ever.   

This year, we are organizing a speaker series – Women Choosing Change Speaker Series – where we will hold eight lunch/learn sessions at our local downtown library exploring topics from a gender equity lens, as well as from an intersectional gender lens, knowing that intersectionality teaches us that people’s experiences are not one-dimensional but that disparities are faced in different ways by racialized women, women with disabilities and 2SLGBTQI+ and non-binary folks. We will explore topics that impact women’s lives including homelessness, diversity and equity in executive leadership, and working and making change in traditionally male-dominated fields. Their stories resonate because they speak to resiliency, power structures and how women break barriers as they make change. 


Q: Is there any solution to challenges that you would like to share? 

A: We are lucky to live in municipalities that are results-driven and dedicated to discussing solutions through successful partnerships with all levels of governments and local community groups. 

A key to our success is attributed to our proactive and continuous engagement with communities. When faced with challenges like the rapid construction of buildings, it becomes evident that the emergency shelters for families could quickly reach capacity again. Addressing such situations goes beyond the efforts of the YW alone. It’s a call for action for so many to participate at all levels of the system to allow for full and efficient solutions to support homelessness. Only through united efforts can we implement comprehensive and effective solutions to alleviate homelessness. 

Q: Can you share any stories that are significant to you? 

A: There are so many stories to share. Once women find a foundation, a place to call home, then the true healing can begin. I remember when I joined the YW, a woman from Block Line approached me with ideas she had been documenting in her personal journal. She told me: “It’s been almost a year since I have moved in, but I still walk by a bush, and I think to myself ‘That looks like a safe place to sleep tonight. I don’t know how to stop thinking about that.” I think we all need to be mindful that our work is much more than housing. We are helping to heal ongoing trauma. 

I am incredible proud of the work we do. It is a gift to lead an organization like this. The advantage of the YWCA national movement is that it helps to unify the fire in all of us and highlights the work that all of us do collectively. At times it may be difficult to see the true impact of our work but as member organizations we are making change, helping women and gender-diverse folks choose change and for that, we should celebrate. 

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