The City of Orillia’s new warming centre, a pilot project for the winter, has been open for seven nights so far this winter in an effort to keep vulnerable community members out of the cold.
The centre, which operates out of the Orillia Community Church (OCC), at 64 Colborne St. E., opened on Dec. 26 and opens its doors each night that temperatures drop below -15 or colder. It will be open again tonight.
The centre saw its first three participants of the year on Jan. 1. The next night, six participants sought shelter from the cold, while 10 attended on Jan. 3. When the temperature plummeted again on Jan. 6, nine people showed up, while 11 people came on Jan. 7, and eight visited on Jan. 11.
Christina Petsinis, the coordinator of the warming centre, says it’s a life-saving service.
“People can literally freeze and die in the cold, so this really is a vital service,” she said. “When those extreme cold weather warnings are issued, it indicates to us that we need to open. It’s so critical to have the centre.”
The Lighthouse, the community's homeless shelter, hasn’t been able to take anybody in recently because of a COVID outbreak at its Queen Street facility, making the warming centre even more critical, Petsinis says.
“We are some relief for folks who would typically apply to and, hopefully, get into the Lighthouse,” she said.
Lighthouse executive director, Linda Goodall, says the warming centre is critical to those experiencing homelessness during the frigid winter months.
"Hopefully, we aren't in COVID outbreak for long, however, we are still in COVID protocol which means we are at a smaller capacity," she said.
"Without the warming centre when we are experiencing extreme cold, it could be incredibly detrimental to somebody's life," Goodall explained. "We don't want to lose anyone due to the weather, and being able to work together as a community to create the warming centre has been incredible and we are really glad it's operating."
The Sharing Place Food Centre provides food to the warming centre through its food recovery program.
“Local restaurants and fast-food businesses will give us their end-of-day leftovers, and we are able to provide that to clients who are on their way out in the morning. It also helps welcome them to the centre. People are grateful to have a meal in their belly and having the ability to be somewhere warm and safe to sleep,” Petsinis said.
Petsinis says there are very few volunteers at the warming centre, and they are in dire need of some extra help.
“We open at 9 p.m., and we sort of have everyone out by 7 a.m. We do intake, bag check, go over expectations for participants, we give them a site tour and show them where the washrooms are located," Petsinis explained of the process.
"You would be surprised how many people say that they haven’t been able to access a washroom the whole day because they can’t go in anywhere because of COVID; it’s pretty challenging,” Petsinis said. “Then we give people a cot, a blanket, and some food.”
To get involved, email a few sentences on why you are interested in volunteering with the centre to firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteers must be double vaccinated and must provide a criminal background check with vulnerable sector screening.
The Orillia Warming Centre is operated by a committee comprised of representatives from the local Affordable Housing Committee, the City of Orillia (which has provided $17,000 in funding for the centre), OCC, The Lighthouse, OPP, The Sharing Place Food Centre, Couchiching Jubilee House, North Simcoe Victim Services, The County of Simcoe, The Canadian Mental Health Association, Information Orillia, and the Orillia Fire Department.