COVID-19, rental costs sending more people to Barrie Bayside Mission for meals

'The rent costs in Barrie are through the roof'

Stephanie Watkinson is alarmed by the numbers.

The executive director of the Salvation Army Barrie Bayside Mission says they did not move into hotels like other shelters in the city because they wanted to continue their takeout meal program.

It operates twice a day, every day, and Watkinson says the number of meals they serve has gone up drastically.

“From January to August 31 this year, we did 105,673 meals. If you compare that to the full year in 2020, we did 122,226 meals,” says Watkinson. “Even the year before COVID in 2019, we did just over 102,000 meals for the whole year. We have already surpassed that in eight months.”

Too easy, says Watkinson, to pin the spike completely on the pandemic.

“I think it’s more than COVID,” she notes. “If you look at Barrie, there is a lot of people that are housing insecure. They may be housed but that’s all they can afford is the rent. The rent costs in Barrie are through the roof.”

“If you are on any kind of assistance, the basic housing allowance on assistance does not cover the rent in the city.”

She says if people are using their basic needs to help pay the rent rather than buy food, then they come to the Bayside Mission for meals.

Stephanie Watkinson -executive director Salvation Army Barrie Bayside Mission

“When I am looking at our monthly numbers, we used to go anywhere between 6,500 meals a month to a high month that might be 9,500. Now our lowest month for this year is 12,000. We are way above on a monthly basis what we normally do.”

The majority of people being served at the Bayside Mission are single individuals. Though Watkinson says they are also seeing more homeless families at one of the shelters they support, with at least 12 receiving care compared to about six the previous year.

She says the situation regarding the homeless and the need for affordable housing is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed. But Watkinson says it’s hard to find the right people that want to address it.

“For example, assistance rates are so low compared to what the cost of living is in this community.”

Watkinson says this isn’t just a Barrie problem, it is province-wide and country-wide. She says disability and Ontario Works have not gone up to match the increase in housing costs.

“I know there are groups that send letters to the powers-that-be to try to get these rates increased. It’s trying to get those dollars back into the hands of families and individuals that need it, and I know there are people working on it and trying to get more affordable housing, but all of this takes time, and I think COVID has really put a highlight on the need in our community.”

The Bayside Mission also provides shelter to homeless men, with between 30 and 32 beds available with pandemic restrictions.