Seeing is Believing Tour: Breaking stigma one tour at a time

By Jemma Dooreleyers

Peer made artwork hangs on most walls in the Kingston Youth Shelter.
Photo by Jemma Dooreleyers.

Whether it was a food drive in elementary school, a high school fashion show fundraiser, or a coin jar at the front of a local business, I can guarantee that you have you have been involved with raising money for the United Way, one way or another.

But when you think of the entity that is the United Way, do you really know where the money goes, who it benefits, or why it is such an important thing to donate when you have the chance? Probably not. It is something that we all know exists, but know very little details around the organizations that it supports. That is why the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) adopted the ‘Seeing is Believing Tour.’

On this bus tour, chauffeured by one of the Kingston Transit express buses, the United Way gives Kingston agencies who have been involved with the United Way a chance to see where their money is going and who it helps. Through this, the United Way hopes to raise awareness about the services offered, gain appreciation and understanding from community members, and to reduce the stigma that surrounds the people who use these services.

“It is a chance for us to share with people the amazing work that is happening in the community,” said Bhavana Varma, the CEO of the United Way of KLF&A. “We have such dedicated agencies and most people are not aware of the strong network of services, so it is important for people to recognize and appreciate the work that is going on.”

On the bus tours there are three different tours that you can go on. One is the tour to the different food banks, the next is a tour around the different donations centres for clothing, and the particular one that I went on was the tour of homeless shelters and transitional homes within the community.

The Tour

The first on the three-hour tour was In From the Cold is run by Home Base Housing, an non-profit agency that provides emergency shelter, connections to housing services and a safe place for people to go to meet with case managers. They also provide computers for people to search for housing, an address where people can receive mail, and prevention counselling for people at risk. There are 24 beds, female only spaces, a common area for people to get a bite to eat, and it is pet friendly.

In From the Cold is special because they have an employee that goes out into the community everyday to chat with panhandlers around town to educate them about the different services that the City offers and refer them to places like Home Base Housing.

The next stop on the tour was the Kingston Youth Shelter for emergency housing. There we learned that Kingston has a higher rate of youth homelessness than the rest of the country, with one in three youth being homeless compared to the national average of one in five. We also learned that this emergency youth shelter is the only one between Toronto and Ottawa. It has 15 beds for youth between the ages 16 and 24 who are experiencing a housing crisis. Not only does this shelter provide personal hygiene products, clothing facilities, nutritious meals, and a safe environment to learn life skills, the shelter also provides a ‘Family Mediation Program.’ This program provides family mediation sessions to help prevent youth homelessness.

According to Vivienne Parent, the family mediation worker at the Kingston Youth Shelter, there has been a 98 per cent success rate in the two years that she has worked there.

Vivienne also said that she thinks the Seeing is Believing tour is important to bring awareness of the shelter.

“The Seeing is Believing Tours are so important because people don’t really have the opportunity to talk to the people about this agency,” she said. “It is really important for people to see that this is a home and not a scary institution.”

The third stop was also a Kingston Youth Shelter, however, this one was a transitional house where youth pay a fee, have their own key, and undergo more intensive counselling to help them learn life skills and overcome the trauma that made them need a shelter in the first place. This facility has seven beds and the youth stay there for a duration of a year. According to full time staff at the transitional home, every little success is a celebration, and having joy within the home is the key to success.

Another piece of peer-made artwork hanging on the wall at Kingston Youth Shelter.
Photo by Jemma Dooreleyers.

We then traversed to Lilly’s Place, an emergency housing shelter for families that have dependant children with them. There are 19 beds, all of which have been fully booked, non-stop since January. At any time, there can be two to three kids living in each of the seven bedrooms, and according to Angela Watson, a fulltime staff member with the home, it can get pretty hectic around dinner time.

Our final destination was One Roof Youth Services Hub, which was established in October 2017 after local youth had expressed their need for everything to be in the same spot. This hub is a partnership between more than 15 youth-serving agencies that work together to support youths aged 16 to 24. Among these agencies are those that specialize in mental health, addictions, housing, education, life skills, and employment resources. There are hot meals, places to relax inside, computers, one on one counselling, and peer-lead support groups. If there is one thing that Tara Everitt, the project manager, would like to see in the coming years of One Roof, it is more peer-lead support groups in all age groups.

The Impact

Although all of these shelters served different vulnerable people within the community and had different services in place, it was apparent that they all had one common goal: to keep vulnerable people off of the street and to prevent homelessness wherever they could.

Just by walking through the halls of these spaces, you could tell the passion the full-time staff had for their mission and that these shelters were run by caring, strong individuals within the community.

However, with one common goal, there was one very obvious common need. Every shelter has been at full capacity for months and the staff have had to turn away people every night. There is a common need for more – More resources, more support, and more space.

Afterwards, I chatted with Wendy Vuike, my seat mate on the bus and the Director of Community Health at Kingston Community Health Centres. When I asked what she had learned from the experience, she hit it right on the nose.

“’Seeing is Believing’ is really a wonderful name for it because it does make a difference,” she said. “I feel like I have a deeper understanding of the challenges, the need for services, the demand for services, but also the work that the amazing staff do.”

With the need for space and services, there is always a need for understanding from the rest of the community said Ruth Noordegraaf, the manager of Housing at the City of Kingston, after the tour.

“(People seeking these services) are part of Kingston, too, and they are part of the community,” she said. “They have a voice and they have needs.”

“I’d love for us to, more than ever, remove the stigma of people who are homeless and see them as real people who just need some help at some point in their life,” said Bhavana Varma at the end of our conversation.

If you would like to donate to shelters like this or book a private Seeing is Believing Bus Tour for your agency, you can visit for more information.


Jemma Dooreleyers is a journalism student at Ryerson University. She is currently on her summer break and when she isn’t writing for the Kingstonist, you can find her behind the counter at Starbucks in the Riocan Centre, or reading a book in bed. She has written for Her Campus Ryerson, ReFINEd Kingston, and did a brief stint as an intern with Station 14 Kingston. She is living with her mom, two cats, and dog in Kingston for the time being.


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