The city’s homeless may just have a place to warm up this winter.
Coun. Natalie Harris brought up the need for a warming centre at general committee earlier this week, pointing out that "time is of the essence" with temperatures dropping quickly as we now enter December.
“The shelter services are overwhelmed and sometimes there isn’t space, so for one reason or another our homeless have nowhere to go,” she told BarrieToday.
While the city did offer a warming centre last winter at the downtown bus terminal on Maple Avenue, that will not be the case this winter, Harris said.
“I wasn’t comfortable not having another option, so myself and some other community advocates started looking and trying to figure out how (we could) have a space for people to go when it’s cold," she said.
Harris said a proposed warming centre location — which she is unable to disclose at this time — has already been identified, describing it as a vacant space in the downtown area. The use of the site is being offered by the owner free of charge.
The owner was “heartbroken” by what he saw, she said, and spoke to Barrie police Const. Keira Brooks, the department's community safety and well-being officer, ultimately offering the building as a warming centre.
“She reached out to me and we all started a conversation," Harris said.
Officials from the Gilbert Centre and John Howard Society of Simcoe & Muskoka (JHSSM) were the first to step up and express a desire to be a part of it, said Harris, noting Barrie Fire officials are checking the building to ensure it meets all safety standards before any final decisions are made.
The organizations will manage staffing and operation of the warming centre, while the property owner has offered to pay the utility costs, Harris added.
The warming centre is a community-based project that has arisen out of a need for a place for individuals to be able to stay warm during the winter months, JHSSM executive director Suzanna McCarthy told BarrieToday.
“Last year, John Howard was able to support the City of Barrie having a warming centre at the bus terminal, but for a variety of reasons, the terminal is not a viable option for this year," McCarthy said. "With the support of the city, our community partners and a very generous private donor, we are working to create an alternate space for people to access for this winter season.
“This warming centre will be a shelter alternative for individuals who are unable, for any number of reasons, to access regular shelter beds," she added.
Ideally, McCarthy says the warming centre would run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, however this will be largely dependent on funding and resource availability.
“JHSSM is taking the lead on this project because we saw the need for quick action and strong leadership from a community based social support service with an ability to leverage resources and existing relationships,” she said. “We are fortunate to be able to partner with the Gilbert Centre and Ryan’s Hope as well in this effort and are looking forward to welcoming many more of our partners into the operations once we have the framework in place.
"Many of the clients who will be accessing this warming centre are familiar with JHSSM and the supports we offer," McCarthy added. "That, paired with our strong presence at last year’s warming centre, led to a natural transition for us to step into the role of taking the lead.”
Harris says the donation of a space will serve as a wonderful Christmas present for the city and for those who will utilize it.
“It’s funny how things happen… because we’ve been trying for at least a month to figure out how to get a warming centre and this really suits the purpose perfectly. I am just crossing my fingers it comes to fruition quickly because it’s getting colder," she said.
Busby Centre executive director Sara Peddle says the idea of a warming centre in the city is great news.
“We really appreciate the efforts of our community partners at Gilbert Centre and John Howard Society in establishing an overnight warming centre," Peddle told BarrieToday. "As a community, we need to work together to look after our unhoused citizens."
Local shelter providers, including the Busby Centre, are actively increasing shelter bed capacity as well, Peddle said, adding they look forward to working together and continuing to meet the community needs with options for people to stay warm and access resources, as well as to continue to advocate for immediate housing solutions.
Harris says talks are already in progress involving the county — which is responsible for social housing-related services within Barrie, including funding — and the two agencies, which came forward and offered their services.
City councillors gave initial approval Nov. 29 to a motion requesting the county to work with the Gilbert Centre and the John Howard Society to establish the warming centre in downtown Barrie. This may include requests for direct and/or augmented social service funding if needed, and could also assist with any future overflow from current shelter service providers due to COVID restrictions.
The Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (SCATEH) enumeration of November 2020 showed 563 people, 82 per cent of them single, were experiencing homelessness. And that 49 per cent, or 276 people, were in Barrie.