With colder weather on the horizon, city council has approved $16,500 in funding for The Lighthouse shelter and its community partners for an emergency, overnight warming centre through the 2022-2023 winter season.
The Orillia Community Church (OCC) has agreed to provide the space once again, following its success hosting the warming centre as part of a pilot project for the 2021-2022 season.
The space serves as a “life-saving measure,” OCC and Lighthouse representatives told city councillors Monday, noting the centre opens once the weather drops to -15 degrees celsius, or any temperature with a -20 windchill.
The warming centre is open for those who have trouble accessing shelters due to capacity limits, service bans, or who may not wish to go to a shelter but require emergency accommodations.
“Extreme cold is a major health concern, as we all know. We've all been out in the -30, -40 … but when you're out there all night, you can come up with hypothermia, frostbite … there's so many different possibilities,” said Lighthouse executive director Linda Goodall.
"Of course, the most extreme (situation) is it can even lead to death, and that is the last thing we ever want in our community," she said.
“The mission of the warming centre is to provide emergency, overnight shelter in the winter season by providing low-barrier support and accommodation to the most vulnerable in the city of Orillia.”
The warming centre’s beds were used 243 times across 34 nights last winter, and Goodall anticipates continued – perhaps increased – need for the space through the coming winter.
“As a first year, (this) was a huge success, and with the rollout of COVID, the extreme housing crisis that we all hear about on a daily basis this year, and the encampments that we're experiencing in Orillia that we never have before, even though we have more in the emergency shelter, more than we've ever had in supportive housing, there's still more people on the streets," said Goodall.
The project cost roughly $47,500 last winter, sustained by financial contributions from the city, the County of Simcoe, and private donors, as well as material and food donations from a variety of sources.
The anticipated expenses for 2022-2023 is approximately $53,500.
This winter, the county is also providing $16,500, up from about $7,200 in 2021-2022.
The Laundry Lounge has committed to addressing the project’s laundry needs, and The Sharing Place has committed to providing all food and snacks for the winter.
“I think this was an amazing project last year, just the way various community groups all came together to recognize the need and to meet that need,” said OCC pastor Michael Bells.
"We have a space that's not being used every day every day and it's not being used overnight, and so we said ‘Hey, we want to take seriously our middle name: community,'" said Bells.
Members of council strongly supported continuing the program this winter.
“I can remember when I was the executive director for Victim Services (during a) terrible winter, driving around with the OPP because we knew there were a couple of people that were out in the cold and we just had to find them,” recalled Coun. Pat Hehn. “I was determined nobody was going to die on my watch, and that’s how I feel about this warming centre.”
“There are people that just can't go to the shelter, and we have to look after them so that we can bring them in from the cold, and this is the only way to do it.”
Coun. Tim Lauer wondered whether the warming centre could ease its temperature requirements for opening its doors.
“I really have a problem with -15. Let's all go and stand outside at -5 and just see how that goes,” he said. “Any movement towards lowering that -15 (threshold), I would also support.”
Goodall said the warming centre follows statements issued by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.
“When the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit puts out that warning where it could lead to possible death, that's kind of where that -15 comes in,” Goodall replied. “As you raise it up even five degrees, it like doubles the budget.
“It comes down to money, and it's unfortunate, but we can't keep going up and up and up without increasing that budget," said Goodall.
Lauer also expressed concern that false alarms sent to emergency services could leave volunteer organizations with unwanted bills.
“There was a bit of a problem with false alarms going into the ... fire department, and I believe that the Lighthouse ended up on the hook there, not sure exactly how it all got resolved,” he said.
“I'm hoping that there's some way that the city can sort of pick that up or that some of these volunteer groups aren't getting hit with that cost as well," he added.
“All of our staff, all of the people (working at) the warming centre wear hidden panic buttons around their necks, and this is a safety guard in case they get backed into a situation where they can't call 911 themselves,” explained Goodall. "By the time the OPP show up, the person is (often) gone, so it's considered a false alarm, so that is one place that I would really like to work on as well, because just because the person is gone doesn't mean it was a false alarm."
Goodall said accidentally triggering the panic button, while a seldom occurrence, can result in a bill from emergency services.
“When somebody pushes it accidentally, and it's typically, I think, a $200 or $400 mark, it doesn't happen very often, but yes, we get held accountable for that,” she said. “We need to keep our staff safe, so I don't know the answer.”
The $16,500 in funding approved by council will come from the city’s 2022 operating contingency account.