After a frigid weekend that forced city officials and social service agencies to deploy two city buses to keep people from freezing on London’s streets, more resting spaces are opening this week to offer more help.
The city’s homeless capacity is more significant than last year’s, but at the same time, more people are experiencing homelessness, shelter staff are off sick or isolating, and London’s largest shelter, the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope, is in the midst of an Omicron outbreak.
“Heading into the weekend with a cold weather alert, we ran into the perfect storm with a significant rise in Omicron cases across a number of the shelter providers, with the ability to flex space becoming an issue, a two-fold issue of no space and no staff,” said Kevin Dickins, who oversees the city’s shelter systems.
“Creating bigger spaces wasn’t necessarily the solution because we could have as big a space as we wanted, there wasn’t enough staff because the bigger the space, the more people you can accommodate and then you need more people to support them.”
Instead, the city brought in a city bus on Friday and two on Saturday and Sunday outside of the First St. Andrews United Church on Queens Ave., which has been operating as a winter drop-in space on winter nights, run by the Ark Aid Street Mission.
Not enough space, staff
Starting last night, the Ark Aid Mission opened its own building on Dundas Street, which usually acts as a dining space, laundry and shower facility, to accommodate up to 25 people needing to get warm for the night.
“The fact is that is that the City of London has had more funding through the province to provide extra support during COVID, we’ve had more beds in the system than ever before, but the sad reality is that it’s not enough,” said Sarah Campbell, the executive director of the Ark Aid Mission.
“I think we need to be asking some big systemic questions based on what we’re seeing. We need to ask about income security, about people’s ability to find housing. We are having a housing crisis.”
Cold weather alerts issued by the health unit allow shelters to open up more emergency beds, but a lack of an alert doesn’t mean it’s comfortable or safe to sleep outside, Campbell said.
“Tonight (Monday night) actually isn’t considered a cold weather alert night, although we are hustling as fast as we can to create additional safe space at the Ark to support people because it’s very cold outside. People are wet and cold and the opportunities to get inside are very limited.”
Staff, volunteers stretched thin
The city has been in an “all hands on deck” situation trying to help people keep warm, said Dickins.
“You have COVID ravaging through the community and we’re doing everything we can to support people that are experiencing homelessness but we’re running out of isolation space. Everyone is trying to help, from the Ark to London Cares, My Sister’s Place. It’s really is all hands on deck,” he said.
People have come out with donations, but staff and volunteers are also stretched thin and close to burnout, said Campbell.
“People are responding to the crisis of all the humanity that we see suffering around us, on top of also coping with COVID and keeping their children and their schooling and all of the things that we’re all trying to do in more isolation than as a community over almost the last two years,” she said.
“I think that it does affect the mental health of staff. It affects the opportunities to come together to proble-solve. I think there’s a fatigue that is settling into all frontline workers.”