Winter has arrived and so have concerns about how the region's homeless population will not only stay warm but also stay safe as COVID-19 continues to be an issue.
The County of Simcoe is looking beyond its recent Homeless Shelter Services update.
Salvation Army Maj. Stephanie Watkinson says the plan, which looks into 2022 and was explained to county councillors late last month, is a great overall summary at what the shelter providers and service managers in Simcoe County have been able to accomplish during a pandemic.
"From what I read, it shows true collaboration between many organizations," said Watkinson, who is the executive director for the Salvation Army Barrie Bayside Mission Centre.
Busby Centre executive director Sara Peddle agreed. She says the report shows the "immense collaborative work" that has gone into supporting people and families who've been experiencing homelessness throughout Simcoe County during the pandemic.
"Shelters providers, housing resources programs, street-based outreach teams, mental health and addictions agencies, Barrie Community Health Centre, County of Simcoe paramedicine and the County of Simcoe staff have been working very closely together weekly — sometimes daily — to ensure that we are doing our best during these challenging times while faced with compounding issues of a pandemic, a housing crisis and, for some, a toxic drug/opiate crisis," Peddle said.
"It is not a perfect system, but we keep trying to get creative to help people stay safe and supported during their journey," she added. "We also continue to strive to collectively create the shortest path from homelessness to immediate housing."
In the update, Wendy Hembruff, the county's director community programs and partnerships, pointed out staff have been working closely with shelter providers to ensure adequate capacity within the system and to plan for enhanced drop-in and respite supports for those who elect not to access shelter services.
With the significant number of unsheltered people identified in Barrie, Hembruff says county staff have regularly participated in collaborative community-based planning with local organizations who work with the area’s homeless, as well as representatives from the city’s faith community.
Those discussions have helped identify necessary resources and supports to the broader system of homelessness services during pandemic, she said in her report. The county’s role includes providing leadership within a system of services and supports for homeless residents, as well as working with community partners to ensure adequate shelter capacity exists to meet the identified need, supporting outreach services to facilitate connections to resources, including shelter, and ensuring system stability.
The province’s Plan to Safely Reopen Ontario and Manage COVID-19 for the Long-Term, which was released Oct. 25, included lifting capacity limits in the most indoor settings and certain outdoor settings. Due to that, individuals have different opportunities for winter warming than what was available during the winter of 2020.
“With 2020 bringing lockdowns and closures of both public and private spaces, and stringent capacity limits for congregate and other settings, options to access warm spaces for those who did not wish to access shelter were very limited," Hembruff said in her report. “Winter 2021 planning retains the same key objective as pre-pandemic planning, specifically, to connect those living unsheltered with shelter and to provide resources and supports to transition to more permanent accommodation.”
During the pandemic, Barrie-based shelters — including the Salvation Army Barrie Bayside Mission, the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Busby Centre, and Youth Haven — have utilized a county-funded motel-based shelter model. And while some organizations have recently transitioned back to their home locations, several are continuing to utilize the motel shelter setting.
They have even been able to increase capacity to accommodate individuals who want to access shelter or a respite bed.
“The motel shelter setting has been increased from 130 beds to 198 beds with drop-in services and an additional 20 to 24 respite beds available at the home shelter location of the Busby Centre,” explained Hembruff, noting the county is working toward winding down the motel sheltering model by the end of March 2022.
That planning will involve ongoing collaboration and engagement with community partners to facilitate a successful transition to home shelter locations for the remaining shelter providers whose operations are still based in local motel settings, she said.
County staff will also seek opportunities to work with service providers and community partners to find funding sources, including from other levels of government to assist with supportive and affordable housing programs.