Northern Ontario’s warming-centre crisis

As temperatures drop and homelessness increases, shelters in the north face a critical question — how to make sure there’s enough space to accommodate those in need
By Nick Dunne - Published on Nov 15, 2019
North Bay’s Gathering Place will be opening a warming centre on December 1. (Nick Dunne)

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NORTH BAY — Six days a week, volunteers at North Bay’s Gathering Place feed the city’s vulnerable. They wipe down half a dozen large tables, make breakfast, brew coffee, and prepare sandwiches for lunch. At dinnertime, they dish out hearty portions of roast beef and mashed potatoes. Each week, they serve 1,300 meals.

Come December 1, though, volunteers will be providing a different kind of service. They’ll wheel aside the tables, lay out 10 cots, and turn the soup kitchen into the North Bay Warming Centre, an emergency shelter that offers respite from brutally cold northern Ontario winters.

As northern Ontario’s homelessness crisis intensifies, the non-profits that primarily provide aid are scrambling to accommodate growing demand with stop-gap measures such as warming centres. “All these shelter systems are tapped to the max,” says Dennis Chippa, executive director at the Gathering Place. “It’s a real crisis based on such a real increase in numbers.” While other facilities offer transitional housing, substance-abuse programs, and supports to find permanent homes, warming stations have one central purpose: to keep people out of the cold.

The North Bay Warming Centre has been operating in various forms for the past six winters  — along with a few other volunteers, Chippa helped run it in its early years, and the Gathering Place took it over three years ago. At its previous location, a local seniors’ residence, 10 cots were crammed in a small room with one entrance. That gave rise to overcrowding and safety concerns, and it became clear that another space was needed.

With no other options by mid-July, the Gathering Place decided to host the warming centre in its own Cassels Street space for the winter. “The folks that are coming in know the place. We feed them,” says Chippa. “We think it’s going to be more comfortable.” The non-profit organization will be able to set up 10 cots. Upgrades to the fire sprinklers will enable it to open another five.

The Gathering Place is set to open the doors of its new, larger location at a time when homelessness is becoming increasingly visible in North Bay. Summer tent cities have been a familiar sight around the north end of Lake Nipissing in the past. But, this year, camps sprang up in and around the downtown area — and they didn’t disperse in the fall, when many experiencing homelessness typically head south. That’s left systems in place overwhelmed.

The North Bay Crisis Centre, a shelter that provides transitional housing, had 15 over-capacity days in 2015. In 2018, it had over 100. Last winter, Chippa says, people would skip meals at the Gathering Place to make sure they could get a spot at the old North Bay Warming Centre.

“From our studies, homelessness is on the rise,” says Carol Kauppi, a professor at Laurentian University and the director of the Centre for Research in Social Justice and Policy. Kauppi notes that urban centres such as Toronto have had large, visible homeless populations for decades so there are long-established systems and infrastructure. But Sudbury and other smaller northern cities, she says, don’t have the same capacity: “That whole sector is underfunded. People are scrambling to keep their services operating.”

Extreme cold wears down a population that is already vulnerable to health and other problems, says Kauppi. “People have got to get their needs met. If they’re not met through soup kitchens [or] warming stations, then people are forced to more extreme measures.” When food is scarce, people are left with few options: dumpster-diving or shoplifting. Some resort to petty crime in the hopes of getting caught so that they can take refuge in jail. “People have told me, ‘Well, you know, it’s not the worst thing,’” she says.

Operating the Warming Centre also strains the Gathering Place, whose main mission is serving food. “The warming centre takes a lot of our time up,” Chippa says. “I gotta feed the other 100 people a day, too. And we got to give… hats and mitts and coats to the folks who do have a place to stay.”

In Timmins, the Living Space shelter began running last January; it’s been offering 24-hour service since May. “We’ve been at capacity since we opened,” says executive director Jason Sereda, adding that ongoing renovations, which will double the existing 35-bed capacity, won’t be enough. “We’re turning away 10 to 15 people a night,” he says. “And we know that’s the tip of the iceberg.”

The Living Space partnered with the City of Timmins and the Native Friendship Centre to open the latter’s gym for additional capacity in the event of extreme-weather advisories. On those nights, the Friendship Centre took in up to 60 additional people.

Back in North Bay, Mayor Al McDonald has called for a roundtable of experts on mental health and addictions to advise the city on how to address the growing needs of North Bay. On Wednesday, the City of North Bay announced that the Nipissing Mental Health Housing and Support Services would operate an 18-cot warming station out of the old gd2go restaurant, in space donated by owner Ben Farella. Further discussions about bolstering transitional housing are anticipated in the coming weeks.

“If you look at the immediate problem, the issue is to get their basic needs met: food, shelter, clothing and often transportation,” says Kauppi. “When you look at getting needs met, this is the role for municipalities and local service providers because they can’t do much beyond that. They don’t have the funding.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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