Barrie councillors give nod to chip in for a downtown warming centre, seeking cash from County of Simcoe

Barrie to cover half the $40,000 tab

Discussion around funding for a warming centre in downtown Barrie on Monday night took place when the city was under an extreme cold warning. Environment Canada said wind chill values would drop to minus 30 to minus 35 Monday night into Tuesday morning.

Councillors agreed unanimously to fund half the $40,000 cost for staff at a downtown warming centre for the homeless when a location is found, with the other half to come from the County of Simcoe. The funding would cover the next three months. The County has not yet considered the funding request. No matter the decision, the city’s portion of the tab will remain on the table.

Since November, Coun. Natalie Harris has been spearheading a search for a warming centre in conjunction with the John Howard Society of Simcoe Muskoka (JHSSM).

“Our amazing shelters are funded through the County of Simcoe, and they provide many things, such as beds, peer support, food, harm reduction and connection to resources, and we’re grateful for that,” Harris said.

“But there are times when individuals can’t for whatever reason access the shelter system. Right now that is true, especially with COVID.”

Social services including funding for the shelter system in Barrie is the responsibility of the county. But Barrie tax dollars do flow to the county to assist with that. The shelters located in the city that receive funds from the county are the Salvation Army, Youth Haven, the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Busby Centre.

Coun. Robert Thomson said he supported what Harris was trying to achieve, but he expressed frustration that this discussion was even happening.

“I just don’t even understand how we’re at this stage with the amount of money spent on these services,” Thomson said. “It’s like the guy who tells you he hasn’t bought anything, and it’s Christmas Eve. Winter was coming this year 100 per cent. This isn’t a new season.”

Coun. Gary Harvey said the situation they find themselves in is ridiculous.

“I hope the county’s watching this, and they act fast.”

A location for a warming centre has not been identified, though Harris said discussions were underway, including with two downtown churches.

Mayor Jeff Lehman agreed with Coun. Thomson’s remarks that there are problems with the system.

“COVID has pointed out a whole bunch of frailties in our social service net, in our regulatory net and in society, in general, I think.”

But he said the funding request “is a modest amount of money in an extraordinary circumstance.”

Hours before the council meeting, the city said the transit terminal on Maple Avenue will be available as a warming centre for the duration of the extreme cold warning, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place.

Dawn McApline, the city’s general manager of community and corporate services explained to councillors that the decision to open a warming centre happens when an extreme cold alert is announced for the area by Environment Canada.

“The Environment Canada definition is when the temperature or wind chill is expected to reach minus 30 degrees for at least two hours,” explained McApline. “There are, as Coun. Natalie Harris indicated, various options that are available in different services. There’s the traditional sheltering system, there are respite beds -which are sleeping beds – and then there are warming centres, which are warming only and not necessarily sleeping spaces.”

“Traditionally, those warming spaces have been provided by community organizations. What has happened with the pandemic is the volume of people seeking those spaces has increased, and there are greater challenges in providing these spaces, given health restrictions, and frankly staffing in a COVID environment.”

Coun. Keenan Aylwin got the backing of councillors with his motion that the city open a warming facility when an extreme cold alert is issued by Environment Canada or the temperature or wind chill is expected to hit minus 20 for at least two hours.

“Minus 30 is really, really cold and there’s a need when it’s a bit warmer than that, at negative 20 degrees.”

On Sunday, Barrie police asked homeless community advocates to remove a makeshift warming centre in the gazebo at Sam Cancilla Park on Dunlop Street East because there had been a public complaint.

Makeshift warming centre -Sam Cancilla Park – Barrie 360

Harris told Barrie 360 on Sunday that the shelter had been up for about 10 days and was only being used during the day.

The motion approved at council on Monday still requires the approval of city council at its Jan. 17 meeting.