Cold snap adds urgency to Barrie councillor’s push for a warming centre

The John Howard Society is in discussions with two downtown churches

A chill in the air and frustration in the voice of Coun. Natalie Harris as she continues to push to establish a warming centre, something she has been doing for months now.

Winter’s rough edges are expected to be on display through the weekend and into next week with bone-chilling cold, strong winds and the risk of snow squalls.

The John Howard Society of Simcoe Muskoka (JHSSM) has been the lead agency seeking a location for a warming centre. In December, JHS director Suzanna McCarthy was hopeful they had property pending health and fire inspections.

Harris says, unfortunately, fire code issues would have cost a lot of money to repair in a short period of time in order for the warming centre to work.

“The John Howard Society is working with Trinity Anglican Church and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to have the warming centre,” says Harris.

The churches are located downtown. However, there is still an approval process and insurance issues to work through.

Even if the churches can act as a warming centre, Harris doesn’t believe they can be available every night, and she says that is what is needed.

“You still need to warm up in winter even if it’s not an extreme temperature,” Harris says.

The city did offer a warming centre last winter at the downtown bus terminal on Maple Avenue, but not this season.

With the current provincial COVID-19 restrictions, Harris says a person seeking warmth can’t even access a place to sit like a Tim Hortons.

“That’s why it is so urgent,” says Harris. “It’s so frustrating. A lot of people want to help and are providing really great suggestions on where this can happen, but there are limitations with COVID. I have been asking the city for certain locations, and again, hands are tied with respect to limitations.”

While there are no firm figures on the number of unhoused people on Barrie streets, Harris says 130 has been bandied about.

Harris could turn up the heat at Monday’s council meeting if she can get another councillor to second a motion that the city cover half the $28,000 salary for a full-time worker to staff the warming centre. She will ask the County of Simcoe to support covering the rest of the cost.

The County currently provides funding to several Barrie shelters including the Busby Centre, Youth Haven, the Salvation Army and the Elizabeth Fry Society.

“I reached out to them (County of Simcoe) a month ago. They would like to see collaboration with other services that have already received funding. That really hasn’t come to fruition, regardless of how hard we try.”

Harris acknowledges the Busby Centre has beds at a hotel where services have shifted because of COVID-19.

“And that’s wonderful,” Harris says. “But not everyone can or wants to access a shelter, for many reasons.”

The City of Barrie said in a tweet Friday evening that it had been made aware there are respite beds open and available for people to come in for shelter.

While the JHS is taking the lead in a search for a warming centre, it is also receiving assistance from the Gilbert Centre.

Harris says she is grateful to the community and the people that have reached out to her since she went public with the need for a warming centre.

“It’s been overwhelming how people have reached out to me. I am following through with all the suggestions that come in.”