Word is getting around Haldimand-Norfolk that there is now a place to get out of the cold.
“Every night we’re seeing someone we haven’t seen yet this year,” said Virginia Lucas, director of Church Out Serving, a charity that runs a warming center in downtown Simcoe for residents who need a place to sleep.
Since opening on Jan. 5, the center has yet to fill all 20 beds set up inside the basement of First Baptist Church at Young and Talbot streets. Lucas expects colder temperatures will bring more people to their door.
“In the winter, it is a matter of life and death,” she said. “I hope people come to realize this is a safe option for them to be warm and get a good rest.”
Unlike some warming centers in Hamilton and Toronto, which only open when the mercury dips to a certain temperature, the Simcoe center is open every night into April.
“Even zero degrees is cold,” Lucas said. “We just felt for consistency we would open seven days a week.”
Starting at 8 pm, guests are met by a security guard and a staff person for registration.
After securing their belongings in a storage locker, they head downstairs to their bed for the night, a cot with a medical-grade foam twin mattress, sleeping bag and pillow.
The center has separate sections for men and women and a small private room should families with children need to shelter together.
Doors close at 11 p.m. People can leave any time throughout the night, but there is no re-entry.
Guests are offered a hot meal prepared by Church Out Serving volunteers for the group’s existing meal programs.
“I’m really pleased we can offer them something that’s actually nutritious and will sustain them,” Lucas said.
In the morning, guests can grab a continental breakfast before leaving by 7:30 am
Lucas said some people return night after night, while others drop in from time to time. Most people using the center grapple with addiction or mental health challenges, but others have been caught in the affordable housing crunch.
“We’re starting to see a new demographic of homelessness — people who are between homes and don’t know where they’re going to sleep in the short-term,” Lucas said.
The warming center started last winter as a six-week pilot project in response to reports of residents sleeping outside in the snow. Financial support comes from a provincial homelessness reduction fund administered by the county, bolstered by community donations and volunteer hours.
“The community has been so incredibly generous as the word gets out,” Lucas said. “People have a real big heart and see the need for something like this.”
There is no homeless shelter in Haldimand-Norfolk. A survey of local homelessness in November 2021 found 117 residents without a place to live, though the county says the true number is likely much higher.
Ideally, Lucas said, staff at the warming center can connect clients with social service agencies. But it can be hard to think about long-term solutions “if people are starving or can’t even sleep because it’s cold or unsafe,” she said.
“If you can satisfy some of the basic needs, perhaps some of the hopelessness that has kept them on the street can be dissipated so they’re willing to say yes to other support that’s available.”
JP Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter based at the Hamilton Spectator. The initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.