Simcoe County councillors agreed to provide $20,000 to help fund a pair of warming centres in Barrie until the end of March.
In January, Barrie city council supported a motion to split the $40,000 cost with the county.
Two warming centres operated by the John Howard Society of Simcoe Muskoka opened last month, one at Trinity Anglican Church downtown during the day Monday to Friday, and the other at Catholic Family Services of Simcoe County on Anne St., which is open at night seven days a week.
The County of Simcoe is responsible for social services in the region, including within Barrie and Orillia, and this includes funds for homeless shelters. In Barrie, those shelters are Salvation Army, Youth Haven, the Busby Centre, and Elizabeth Fry Society.
Barrie used the transit terminal as a warming centre last winter, but that was kiboshed this season for a variety of reasons, including the pandemic.
That set off a scramble to find other locations downtown.
Greg Bishop, general manager of social and community services with the county, told council’s committee of the whole meeting on Wednesday that warming centre funding is something that traditionally the county has not provided through its homeless funding envelopes.
“It generally has emerged through at the local level when needed at a community level,” Bishop explained. “The goal as indicated earlier is to connect people with services.”
He said the county has ensured during the pandemic that there has been increased shelter capacity. Bishop said they recognize some individuals may not want to for a number of reasons, are struggling with complex challenges, and may not be in a position where they can come in and take the supports and shelter that’s available.
Bishop said what is different compared to previous years is the pandemic has resulted in increased numbers of homeless individuals.
In Barrie, the Busby Centre operates respite beds at a north end hotel and provides a day and overnight warming facility at its home base on Mulcaster Street.
Orillia Coun. Pat Hehn got support for a motion that staff schedule a meeting with elected officials from Orillia, Barrie, Simcoe County and relevant warming agencies in the county to review warming centre operations.
“So that moving forward next year, we have what we need for warming centres,” Hehn said. “And also looking at this for the summer and what we need for cooling centres because this problem isn’t going away.”
“We need to tackle it now rather than waiting, so we’re not caught trying to scramble to put things in place.”
In November, Orillia city council approved putting $17,000 toward the hiring of a coordinator for an overnight warming centre that operates out of the Orillia Community Church downtown when night temperatures are -15 degrees Celsius or colder or when a weather advisory issued.
The pilot project was referenced by the county in its report to council on Wednesday. This was a partnership with the City of Orillia, the local Affordable Housing Committee, The Lighthouse Shelter, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Sharing Place Food Centre, Couchiching Jubilee House, North Simcoe Victim Services, Canadian Mental Health Association, Information Orillia and the Orillia Fire Department.
Several councillors in the south end of the county said they are also feeling pressure from local Out of the Cold programs seeking funds for warming centres.
“I think the current situation is a bit of a function of COVID,” Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman told the meeting. ” And the isolation requirements that have completely changed the service model for our shelter providers. The City of Barrie will be speaking with the county about how we ensure there’s capacity should we be in these unusual circumstances against next year.”
Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke said these issues existed before the pandemic, and the pandemic has exacerbated those in terms of increasing the number of homeless and the need for warming centres.
“We need to take care of things this year and next year and whether we’re out of the pandemic or not, but certainly a long-term solution,” Clarke said. “It certainly appears the residual effect of the pandemic, or one of those effects, will be to have a significantly higher number of homeless people and certainly the increased need for warming centres.”