Since the end of January, the Fort Frances Family Centre on Scott Street has ensured there is a warm place for homeless people to go at night to keep them out of the cold.
Up until Feb. 19, the centre stayed open 24/7. But now that the Fort Frances Volunteer Bureau has opened its doors as a “warming centre” for three nights a week, the centre has stayed open for the other four.
Traci Lockman, one of the centre's volunteers, said when they woke up on Jan. 26, they had no idea they were going to be open for 24 hours moving forward.
“It was 48 below [zero] that night with the wind chill and were going to have to kick everybody out,” she recalled.
"We were going home to our warm houses and one of the young ladies with us was pregnant.
“We just all looked at each other and said, 'Okay, we're open.' Nobody had to talk anybody into it,” Lockman added.
Fellow volunteer Monica Sus said they saw staying open as the only thing to do with such severe weather, knowing the homeless here had nowhere else to go.
“In a small community, we are not equipped to handle homelessness,” she stressed.
“Especially in a small community with very bad temperatures.”
To help address the issue, the Volunteer Bureau has been open from 7:30 p.m.-7:30 a.m. on Sunday-Tuesday while the Fort Frances Family Centre has filled the gap in between.
“The night's they're not open, we're open,” Sus noted.
“And we're open all day so we're still making breakfast, lunch, and supper,” she added.
Many of the homeless here are dependent on the centre to get relief from the frigid temperatures.
“We had a group of people waiting for us to get here [to open] the other day, and one had the tip of her ear looked frost-bitten and the other one, his eyelashes were frozen,” Lockman said.
“And they're just out there waiting for one of us to show up.”
Without the centre, it's likely many of the homeless would suffer from frost-bite, among other health complications due to the cold, Sus said.
At night, the centre is seeing around 15 people while 40-50 come through it over the course of a day, requiring a lot of food and supplies, she explained.
In the last three-four months Sus said they have more than tripled the number of people they serve.
“We did not realize how many hungry people there were,” she remarked.
The centre, which relies solely on community donations, also acts as an emergency food bank and makes sure those in need are adequately clothed.
Donations from the community were overwhelming when the centre first announced it was opening its doors 24/7, and it is thankful to all the churches, generous individuals, groups, and organizations that have stepped up with donations and helping hands.
Last Monday, for instance, the Fort Frances Lions Club donated $1,000 to help cover the centre's cost of rent for February and March.
The Fort Frances Voyageurs Lions Club also recently gave $1,000 for rent, as well as sent volunteers to cover shifts at the centre.
“When working together . . . it's amazing what you can accomplish because although we've done the physical part of this, there is no way we could have gotten this far without the help of the community,” Sus stressed.
Since opening for 24 hours a day, the centre has had various local caterers, service groups, and restaurants drop off leftover sandwiches or food.
If there are any other businesses in the community with extra food, Sus said the family centre could benefit from it greatly.
The influx of support the centre initially received after becoming a warming centre was fantastic, but it has used up almost all the donated supplies.
Donations of homemade cookies, muffins, casseroles, soups, coffee, non-perishable food, Safeway gift cards, clothing, shampoo, hygienic products, and anything of use is greatly appreciated, as well, Sus said.
“If someone can use it, we'll take it,” she remarked.
Because the centre has become a popular place among the homeless, the volunteers have seen many of the challenges they face first-hand.
“We see so many problems and we don't even know where to start," Sus admitted. "We've put a little band-aid on the situation by giving them something to eat and keeping them warm but it is a huge situation.”
Lockman said sometimes it's a financial crisis, but they're also seeing how mental health issues are tied to homelessness and how powerless they are to help.
“If they're well enough to be up and walking, talking, then you can't force them to take the medication,” she explained.
A lot of what the centre currently is doing through offering a warm place at night is eliminating the clog of homeless trying to access warm facilities elsewhere in the community at night, Lockman noted.
“At the hospital, there were people locking the doors and sleeping in the bathrooms,” she said.
"Our poster's now over there and they're sleeping here [now].
“There were people sleeping in the banks' [atriums]," Lockman added. "The police are bringing them [to us] now and dropping them off.”
“There's places in town people were staying at that we didn't even know existed—just trying to survive.”
With temperatures remaining consistently cold, the centre plans to carry on as a warming centre until things warm up.
In the meantime, it is extremely thankful to the volunteers who work tirelessly to run the centre and serve the homeless.
Anyone interested in volunteering or dropping of donations can contact Sus at 271-2839.
As well, to celebrate its one-year anniversary, the centre will be holding a turkey dinner this Friday (March 8) from 4-6 p.m.
Everyone in the community is welcome to attend, enjoy a delicious meal, and learn a little more about the Fort Frances Family Centre.