During a northwestern Ontario winter, staying outdoors overnight can be fatal.
To ensure the district's homeless population can get out of the cold this season, the Fort Frances Homeless Committee plans to set up a warming centre at a to-be-determined location for 14 weeks, with hopes of starting in December.
“When we first started looking at homelessness, it was mostly couch surfing that we were seeing and so people didn't really realize that we had homeless in our community,” noted Sandra Weir, Homelessness Committee member and integrated services manager at the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board (RRDSSAB).
“It's been a lot more visible in the last few years as situations have changed and we're starting to see more on the street, homeless.”
Over 80 individuals have been identified by the RRDSSAB as homeless in Fort Frances and Weir said having homeless people outside becomes extremely dangerous when temperatures dip down to 40-below.
As well, there's a larger stress on the system when these individuals don't have a shelter or warming centre to access.
“It forces people to use services that don't need to be used such as the emergency department or they might end up in the criminal system because people can't stay outside,” Weir explained
“They're finding other ways to get warmth that they might not necessarily need.”
The monthly cost of housing a homeless person in a hospital bed is $10,900 or in a provincial jail is about $4,300, while a shelter bed costs close to $2,000.
Alternatively, housing a homeless person in a rental supplement only costs $700 and social housing is $200, according to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
The organization also estimates that the 35,000 Canadians who are homeless on any given night cost the Canadian economy $7.05 billion annually, with costs increasing each year.
Last year, the Homeless Committee operated a warming centre at the Fort Frances Volunteer Bureau on Fourth Street West which was accessed by 79 individuals over 60 nights.
It had two qualified staff present at all times and on average the centre had 9.5 visits per night, with each visitor costing roughly $92 per stay.
With a total of 566 visits, the approximate cost to run the centre last year was $52,000, although it had several one-time, startup expenses which won't have to be paid this coming season.
This year, the Homeless Committee is also trying to find a more permanent location for a pop-up shelter in town, Weir noted.
“Although last year it was great that we were able to do the warming centre at the volunteer bureau, it still was not an ideal location or situation, especially for overnight,” she said.
The Homelessness Committee is currently taking two approaches, with one focus being the warming centre, and the other finding long-term solutions, such as housing that is specifically designed for homeless individuals.
“We want to come up with solutions and supports that are able to not only get people housed but keep people housed and so the committee continues to be actively involved in making sure those goals will be met at some level,” she explained.
“Some people need different services than just your four walls and a roof and good luck . . . so we're looking at housing that has a support side.”
The Homelessness Committee, meanwhile, is a group made up of 16 agencies who have a vested interest in ending homelessness locally, said Weir.
“It's frontline workers, for the most part, that work directly with the clients that we're trying to help,” she remarked.
Weir said there's no new money for the Homelessness Committee's warming centre initiative and community partnerships as well as fundraisers are critical to its success.
“This wasn't a government program that came down . . . it was really a group of agencies that got together and formed a committee with a purpose of trying to deal with homeless solutions for our district,” noted Jamie Petrin, committee member and RRDSSAB community coordinator for homelessness.
She told the Times the Homelessness Committee has actively reached out to other “Out of the Cold” shelters in communites across Ontario and said it takes a lot of planning to get into motion.
“What we've heard with temporary, emergency-style shelters . . . is that they typically take more than just a couple months of planning to get off the ground and open,” Petrin said.
“We've heard from other communities that it's taken a few years to actually be able to open any kind of door,” Petrin remarked.
Some of the largest challenges with opening a pop-up shelter is meeting building codes and a number of regulations.
“It's not a quick solution . . . it's a lot of work and a lot of time and I know things aren't happening quickly as people would like but that's because there's so much that goes on behind the scenes,” Weir stressed.
To raise funds for this year's pop-up shelter, the Homelessness Committee has set up donation boxes at Community Living Fort Frances & District, Greens BrandSource, Northwood Gallery & Gifts, Fort Frances Times, and McTaggart's.
Non-financial donations such as warm, winter clothing; new undergarments and socks; hygiene items which contain no alcohol; and easy to open, non-perishable food items, can be made at Green's BrandSource as well.
A “Photos with Sanata Claus and Mrs. Claus" fundraiser is also taking place at the Couchiching Multi-Use Centre during a "Winter Vendorland” event this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Weir said more information regarding this year's warming centre, and its location, will be announced by the Homeless Committee in the coming weeks.