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Overnight warming centre gets fired up as cold snap approaches

'People can die in these temperatures, so it’s important that we are open,' says John Howard Society of Simcoe-Muskoka executive director

With Old Man Winter expected to hit the city with bone-chilling temperatures over the next few days, most people can simply opt to stay inside or bundle up, but for the city’s homeless that’s not always an option.

Environment Canada has issued extreme cold weather warnings, predicting temperatures in the region to reach minus-35 to minus-40 Celsius tonight and into Friday morning. That means the doors of the city’s warming centre, which is run by staff and volunteers of the John Howard Society of Simcoe Muskoka (JHSSM) inside Collier United Church at 112 Collier St., will in be open.

“We were open last night and will be open through Feb. 6 at minimum,” said Hayley Murdoch-Fyke, the organization's executive director.

The warming centre, she noted, will be open overnight from 8:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. during the upcoming cold snap, but unfortunately, due to a variety of different factors, the organization is simply not able to operate the warming centre around the clock. Instead, people have been using the organization’s small office on Bradford Street as a makeshift warning centre during daytime hours, she said.

“The health effects from extreme cold are extremely detrimental … and the vulnerable population that is experiencing these health concerns aren’t able to access proper care for it," she said. "We do a lot of first aid in-house … for cold-related injuries. People can die in these temperatures, so it’s important that we are open.”

Murdoch-Fyke told BarrieToday she was contacted by County of Simcoe officials asking about the possibility of staffing the Collier Street warming centre 24-7 for the next week.

“I have spoken with the county, so they are aware I am running a kind of warming centre in the office, because they asked what my staffing capacity could be over the next little bit and if it was possible to operate 24/7 for the next week," she added. 

Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, as well as other groups using the church, she informed them the organization would not be able to move full-time operations to that location.

Both the Busby Centre’s temporary shelter on Rose Street and their 88 Mulcaster St. location will remain open for clients during the extreme cold, said executive director Sara Peddle. She says the Rose Street facility was open today (Feb. 2) and will likely remain open throughout the weekend for those who have been assigned a bed there to stay warm during the daytime hours, in addition to overnight, during the upcoming extreme cold warning. 

“We have staff and volunteers up there keeping the doors open, and at 88 Mulcaster St., we have our drop in open today," Peddle said. "Tomorrow, as long as we can get enough staffing put in place, we will have additional spaces there as well.”

Both Peddle and Murdoch-Fyke agree that while they are grateful for what is available, they would still prefer to see a full-time warming centre open in the city.

“Providing funding for a full-time warming centre would not only keep people safe and alive, it will also provide options for services in the city," Murdoch-Fyke said. "That’s important because people need a choice on where they feel safe and want to go.

"It is also much easier to staff when you know when you’re open, for how many days, and for how long."

With opening being determined by temperature reaching at least minus-15 C, it’s not always easy to communicate that with people. 

“We try to communicate as quickly as we can and spread the word around, and we call the shelters and non-emergency lines so first-responders are aware we are open, but if our clients have found some little corner where they are out of the wind, they won’t know that we are open,” said Murdoch-Fyke.

Being proactive and consistent, added Peddle, would definitely help not only Busby, but all local organizations, be able to plan better.

“It’s harder when we have these pop-up situations and only for specific temperatures," she said. "It is a challenge because we need to have consistency of funding and support so we can have consistency for our staffing and volunteers. When we are following the temperature warnings 24 to 48 hours before the cold snaps are coming, it’s very challenging to organize, especially when we need so much space for people.”

A more consistent plan over the winter months, Peddle added, would be a definite benefit to the community and the people these groups are serving.

“Regardless of if it’s minus-5 or minus-15, it’s still cold and people need somewhere to go. We need to have a couple of different spaces," she said. "We need to have multiple tools in our toolbox, but it is getting harder and harder when we don’t have an appropriate building to facilitate the larger numbers we are seeing.

"Unfortunately, that’s not going away anytime soon and we know that,” Peddle added. “People’s health and lives are at risk when we are not having an appropriate space. We are very fortunate that all of our team keeps showing up because they care about making sure people get inside.”