A plan to have Ark Aid Street Mission operate 120 winter shelter spaces at four locations in London, Ont. for the city’s winter response to homelessness was given the green light on Tuesday by city politicians.
The winter beds are in addition to $2.6 million in funding that will go to six agencies running drop-in services and outreach programs into the spring.
Ninety-five of the beds will be at two locations, including 30 at Ark Aid’s main Dundas Street location, and 65 at the former Bishop Cronyn Memorial Church on William Street.
The remaining 25 will be operated in partnership with the CMHA Thames Valley at their Coffee House location on Hamilton Road and at My Sisters’ Place on Dundas.
Six councillors – Peter Cuddy, David Ferreira, Steven Hillier, Shawn Lewis, Steve Lehman, and Paul Van Meerbergen – voted against funding beds at the former church.
Lewis voiced concerns about accessibility and the cost of the overall plan, adding he would be a “hard no” if council were asked for more funding for added security, personnel, or renovations.
“I do not believe we should be spending public dollars to renovate a building, for whatever purpose, that enjoys tax-free status as a faith institution,” he said.
Mayor Josh Morgan voted against the William Street beds during last week’s strategic priorities and policy committee meeting.
He flipped his vote on Tuesday after city staff informed council that surplus funding from last year’s winter response had been identified for this year’s beds.
“It’s unfortunate that the sector is so stretched, that there aren’t a lot of service providers who can come forward in the amount of time that we need to do this,” Morgan said.
“That’s not a fault of our staff not trying to work hard. It’s not a fault of the sector, who are desperately trying to find individuals. It is a reality of the situation.”
Staffing a key obstacle in opening more shelter spaces
The winter beds are not nearly enough to help most Londoners sleeping rough, even with existing at-capacity programs, like the 300 emergency shelter beds the city already funds.
There are about 2,000 people living unhoused in London, and the city is dotted with encampments, many along the river.
With the winter beds lasting only a handful of months, finding staff has been challenging, said Sarah Campbell, Ark Aid’s executive director.
“I think it’d be right near the top. Maybe number one?” she replied when asked where staffing ranked in a list of obstacles to opening more beds.
Ark Aid is bringing on roughly 100 staff members to operate the beds.
“Hiring qualified and interested people who are able to work the midnight shift… is a challenge every year. It’s particularly challenging when we’re trying to expand our system,” Campbell said.
“These are not secure jobs with benefits… and that makes it incredibly hard to compete in a difficult job market.”
Former YMCA proposed as shelter location
On Tuesday, Lewis expressed concern Ark Aid was willing to come forward and use the church space when the former Bob Hayward YMCA was available.
The city had approached Ark Aid about operating an additional 65-bed overnight shelter at the YMCA until the end of March, but the proposal fell through.
“I understand that there were concerns about the stop date on that one. But respectfully… people are recreationally camping in May. To say that May is a cold weather response month to me is a considerable stretch,” Lewis said.
Ark Aid told the city it would not be able to provide necessary staffing even after the city offered to lead the shelter and take on additional responsibilities.
“Staffing is a huge issue. I’m uncertain even with the proposal for us to open the 65 beds on William Street, that’s largely tied to our ability to get enough staff,” Campbell said.
A staff report tabled last week said “there remains no viable operating or staffing plan to effectively utilize this space.”