Listening Tour: John Neufeld, Executive Director of the House of Friendship

Today’s stop on Scott’s Listening Tour: John Neufeld, the Executive Director of the House of Friendship!

The House of Friendship is serving more than 43,000 people across Waterloo region. With more than 20 programs, 1000 volunteers, and 170 team members, it tackles nearly every social issue that comes to mind, with one goal: to help one another.

Here’s some of my conversation with John. Thanks for chatting with me!


1) How did the House of Friendship begin?

It began long ago during the economic depression in the 1930s, spearheaded by a group of women. They started by helping those around them with meals and whatever assistance they could. We’ve since grown and evolved over the decades, and today we help over 43,000 people in Waterloo region by providing food, shelter, housing, and now we’ve become the lead agency for addiction treatment.

2) What are the significant issues hitting Waterloo region at the moment?

The most obvious right now is the opioid crisis. Everyone is bearing the brunt of it. The House of Friendship is affected as much as the Bridges, but they receive more attention because they’re so visible in the community.

The problem is that key social services are under-resourced and misunderstood. There is a mistaken belief out there, that it is the services themselves that actually bring the problems to a city. Some people assume that ‘If we didn’t have the Bridges or the Food Bank, then we wouldn’t have a problem!’ Well, no. Take the example of cancer centres. Cancer centres don’t increase the rate of cancer in a city; instead, they’re places where people in distress can go to get help, to feel better, and it’s far cheaper, faster, and more beneficial for the individuals afflicted, and their community overall, than ignoring the problems that are already there.

The Bridges, for instance, was originally (and unfortunately) assumed to be an answer to ‘all’ social issues affecting the city. But how is that ever possible, and especially when it’s under-resourced? Today, Cambridge is fast becoming a major urban centre. It’s developing. And like all urban centres, there are significant problems and issues surrounding mental health and homelessness. The question is: are we going to help people and provide resources for them, or stick our heads in the sand?

If people have places of dignity to be — if they have a home, a meal, a good conversation — that really goes a long way.

3) How can we alter and transform these issues?

Through education. Citizens have to know what is fuelling these issues, and how complex they really are. Lately, citizen groups are taking a big lead on this, because they realize the complexity, and they care. They’re achieving new forms of collaboration to realize new solutions across the board.

The difficulty is how ‘new’ these problems are, too. We’ve always battled addictions and homelessness, but recently, something’s different; especially over the past 2 years. The week of the fire at the House of Friendship in Cambridge, there were 4 drug overdose deaths in 5 days. There were more OD’s in the first 4 months of 2019 than in all of 2018.

With this surge, people feel unsafe in their downtown cores, because the crisis is so visible. We as people naturally fear the unknown; and so, people want simple answers now as to how we can improve these problems. They galvanize around particular issues, as a way to alleviate this fear.

4) How should we frame these issues for our residents?

We have to reinforce that there’s no single magic bullet. There’s no one magical treatment for addiction, and different things work for different people. It’s like any health issue. Look at cancer: no one treatment works for everyone! Yet we don’t hear people saying, “Well, I had cancer, this specific treatment worked for me, so if it doesn’t work for others, then it’s their own fault, or it’s due to their shortcomings of a lack of drive or initiative.” No.

We need to recognize that years of scientific, medical, and social research are important here. They are what has to back up our claims. Personal experience is important, and it’s very real, but it’s only a sample size of 1. We also need larger studies, evidence, and facts that collect all of our experiences.

5) What are your thoughts on amalgamation?

Well, we don’t think in terms of an ‘area’. Whoever you are, if you’re struggling, if you need help, we just want to know that you’re getting care. If you don’t have a place to live, or food, well geography shouldn’t be a concern. We’re serving all of Waterloo region at present, so amalgamation isn’t a concern for us in a way.

6) What makes a good community?

A community is good when everyone can belong, and can thrive. A downtown core doesn’t have to be gentrified. It has to a real place for everyone; so it can be gritty and quite ‘real’ in places, but it should always allow everyone to belong.

7) What do you want from your MP?

We need hope and we need positivity. No more fear mongering.

We need to vote for a person that thinks. That’s smart, and makes good decisions on behalf of the community. They have to be bold and brave. Smart, thinking differently, and thinking critically. If they’re just mimicking public outcries but not thinking ahead, not doing what’s morally or ethically right, then what’s the point?”