The staff of Collingwood Out of the Cold are trying to celebrate the successes of the last six months, but they live under a thundercloud of uncertainty.
Out of the Cold was operating a temporary, overnight shelter and, thanks to government funding offered during the COVID pandemic, transitioned to a 24/7 shelter using a local hotel/resort where they can house clients.
But the funding is not forever and could end at any moment.
Pam Hillier, executive director of 211 Community Connection and a member of the Out of the Cold Task Force, said the unknown and possible end of funding looms over them all.
“We’re in week 26 of operating a 24/7 shelter. The first six weeks was mayhem, but it smoothed out and we’re getting a structured program now,” she said. “It would be such a shame if we lose it.”
Last winter before COVID, Collingwood Out of the Cold was operating an overnight shelter at 250 Peel Street, which is where E3 operates day programs for clients. At night, shelter staff use mats and other stored equipment to set up 12 beds. They also serve dinner to guests and send them with breakfast when they leave in the morning. The shelter used the building from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday.
Out of the Cold has helped 63 individuals since opening the doors of its temporary shelter last year.
“We’re planning an overnight system for mid-November, but I can’t fathom how it would work with COVID,” said Hillier. “It’s stressful for our participants and staff not knowing what the future is.”
Adding to the stress is the severity of not only the pandemic, but the needs of those experiencing homelessness. In Collingwood, there is a prevalence of senior men without shelter, many of whom need some help for health issues, but do not need full-time care at a nursing home.
Lee Zinkan-McKee is a former public health nurse now on staff for Collingwood Out of the Cold. She too agrees the current hotel system is the best way to prevent a COVID outbreak in a shelter, but she’s also noticed other important benefits of the full-time shelter model.
She’s been working with county paramedics and mental health workers on regular checkups with those who are currently housed in the 24/7 shelter system in Collingwood.
“They arrive in crisis and are exhausted,” said Zinkan-McKee. “We can say to them, all you need to do is rest. Soon we see them come to life again, and we can see what their needs are and what supports them.”
Some of the people Zinkan-McKee works with need help sorting out medications, or they need to see a doctor for a chronic condition, or they need basic first aid.
If Out of the Cold returned to an overnight-only model, the visits from community paramedics and mental health support staff would cease, since those take place during the day.
Dana Frigon, part of the Out of the Cold shelter management team, said the COVID pandemic has revealed a portion of the homeless population they once had trouble reaching.
People who once lived by couch-surfing now cannot stay with friends or family who are worried about reducing their contact with individuals outside of their household.
“During COVID, we’ve seen so many people who are homeless and who are struggling,” said Frigon. “When this [funding] ends, what’s that going to look like? How do they continue to access these services and supports?”
Sara Peddle is the executive director of Barrie’s Busby Centre shelter, and this summer also joined the Collingwood Out of the Cold taskforce to offer her experience and support to the local shelter.
She is looking not only at COVID, but at another threat.
“We’re about to deal with another component that will exacerbate things if we don’t have capacity already,” she said. “The frigid temperatures become life-threatening … it’s a critical season.”
Current funding for Collingwood Out of the Cold’s hotel program and eight other shelter providers in the county is coming from the County of Simcoe, which received money from both the province and the federal government for homeless shelter programs.
The Social Services Relief Fund, provided by the province, brought in more than $2.4 million to the County of Simcoe for 2020-21. This funding is being split between homelessness programs, food security, housing, and other related supports.
The Reaching Home COVID-19 allocation, provided by the federal government, provided $1.64 million in funding for 2020-21.
A $4 million injection into homeless shelters in the county is significant, but it’s not the answer, according to those managing the shelters.
“Shelters are not a solution,” said Frigon.
“If there was enough investment in housing, mental health, and addiction treatment that is accessible to all, and income security … we would not be in the state we are in,” said Peddle. “There needs to be investment in humans and the social determinants of health.”
Peddle says the people who come through the doors of Out of the Cold and the Busby Centre are “collateral damage of a broken system.”
COVID-19 has highlighted the damage, added Peddle, who has long been the chair of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness.
“Through COVID, it has been apparent what role the shelter has played, and that we need to do better,” said Peddle. “We need to create a foundation or we’re going to keep bottlenecking the system.”
Though stormclouds loom, there are also silver linings. Hillier said the pandemic has also shown her the mettle of the 14 staff who work at Out of the Cold and it has brought about more relationships between agencies and shelters providing services all across the county. There are twice-a-week calls between shelter staff, the county and the health unit that have formed a County Emergency Shelter Table.
“This relationship has never existed before at this level,” said Hillier. She said the calls are often tough conversations, filled with celebrations and sometimes with sorrow.
According to Hillier, The county cannot give the area shelters an answer on how long the funding will last or if more is on the way from upper levels of government.
“The shelter model is expensive … but I don’t see any other way to keep people safe,” said Hillier. “If it just stopped, people are going to die.”