Out of the Cold Shelter continuing to offer services despite challenges of COVID-19 pandemic
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
The Sioux Lookout Out of the Cold Shelter, currently located at the old Queen Elizabeth District High School has a capacity to accommodate 28 people each night, with some potential to expand if required. The Executive Director for the Out of the Cold Shelter, Susan Barclay said, “Our shelter is busy 12 months of the year. The weather does not make a difference. The people need a shelter year-round and we are as busy in the summer as we are in the winter. Due to COVID, I believe our numbers are down a little bit, not very much.” She explained that due to the pandemic, the numbers in the initial three months, from April until June, were quite low, as there were very few people in town without a place to live. However, the new physical distancing rules also meant a need for a larger shelter space. Barclay further mentioned that the numbers are quite variable and are gradually building back up to normal, averaging anywhere from 13-17 people a night.
Barclay said, “We are currently using space in the old Queen Elizabeth High School as our emergency shelter space. Due to COVID, we were advised that the usual space we’d been using (at 25 Fair Street) doesn’t allow for proper distancing of people. If we were in our regular space, we would only be able to fit approximately nine people with proper distancing.” She added that they hope to continue to operate out of the high school throughout the winter.
According to the COVID-19 Guidance: Homeless Shelters document on the Government of Canada’s website, “Homelessness is often the result of the interaction between structural factors, insufficient services, and individual circumstances.
“Many people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness rely on community-based organizations, non-profit and voluntary organizations for a range of essential services. Marginalized and vulnerable groups, including Indigenous community members, individuals identifying as LGBTQ2S+, and youth, are disproportionately represented among those experiencing homelessness.”
The document further states that as a result of the barriers that people are facing in accessing traditional services and standard resources, the people experiencing homelessness may be at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, or developing complications due to the virus. These circumstances may further affect people’s ability to adhere to public health advice, such as effective quarantine (self-isolate) or practice physical distancing and perform proper hand hygiene. It further mentions that those experiencing homelessness may also be exposed to numerous other people as they move between locations.
According to the Sioux Lookout Out of the Cold Shelter’s Facebook Page, not only does it provide emergency shelter, but also offers transition housing, food bank, meal programs, and referral services. Their mission statement is to provide facilities that are safe, clean, reliable, accessible shelter (including food and other basic necessities) for people who have no safe place to stay, so that the risk of anyone suffering from hypothermia or exposure is reduced. Their mission statement further mentions, “Sioux Lookout Out of the Cold operates so that all people involved with the shelter are treated with respect, dignity, and as valued members of the community. Sioux Lookout Out of the Cold works in partnership with other organizations to advocate for access to services that assist individuals to explore other life-style options and gain independence from the need for emergency services.”
The shelter, located at 25 Fair Street, is a space that was purchased by the Nishnawbe-Gamik Friendship Centre to tackle homelessness. Barclay said, “Initially during COVID, we moved over to the Recreational Centre in April. But then, when things started to open up, we still couldn’t move back in to our building for safety reasons.” She added that the shelter was able to move into the high school in June, hoping to spend the winter there and in the meantime, look for suitable locations to move into next. “The service is funded though the Kenora District Services Board. Out of the Cold is a very small Sioux Lookout volunteer operation, not-for-profit corporation. The overall needs of the population is taken into consideration as the District Services Board moves forward with plans for a new shelter,” said Barclay.
“We quiz people and find out why they are in town. If there is a reason for them, we can assist them to return where they live. During COVID we’ve had the funds to do that. It’s not part of our normal budget,” said Barclay. She added that there is active COVID-19 screening and washing of hands, every time people come in. The shelter limits its entrance from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. every day, with some flexibility. Barclay said, “Weather will play a role in that and as it gets colder, we won’t deny anyone. People need to come in and get warmed up.”
Barclay mentioned that moving into the old high school, which is located just down the street from the shelter’s original location, is convenient in some ways. “There is no facility in the high school to do cooking. So, we are cooking our major meals in our old building and taking them over to the high school. It’s complicated right now.” She said that their food bank continues to operate out of the 25 Fair Street location and is open to anyone in need. “We’re open from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. everyday, except Sunday and Monday.” The service experienced a drop in demand over the summer. Barclay shared the two factors she believes lead to this decrease. “One, a number of people who were accessing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and two, the Friendship Centre would be able to work with the school lunch nutrition program and the health unit to provide fresh food hampers through the summer. So, I think the same population that would normally be coming to the food bank were well supported through the summer.”
Barclay said that most of the people who use their services are dealing with chronic, mental health and/or addiction issues. The COVID-19 Guidance: Homeless Shelters document states that people experiencing homelessness may be at higher risk of developing complications due to COVID-19, as they are more likely to report having an underlying chronic condition (particularly asthma and heart conditions) compared to the general population. It further states, “In addition, those with chronic medical conditions (e.g. physical health, mental health, and substance use disorders) may be exacerbated by impacts of the pandemic and additional safety, harm reduction considerations and mental health supports may be required. Organizations, community health workers and volunteers play an important role in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 among those who experience
Barclay said that the greatest challenge that COVID-19 poses for the population they serve is the lack of availability of services during this time. “The barrier that COVID has presented is the ability to get people help, a way to some kind of service. The lack of service in Sioux Lookout is an ongoing issue because we don’t have detox, we don’t have treatment, and we don’t have safe beds, crisis beds. Some of those things are supposed to be available regionally, but they have not been due to COVID-19.”
The shelter is always welcoming donations and volunteers, who may come and help out at any time convenient to them. Barclay said, “Volunteers are welcome, as long as they understand the risk and they follow our protocol for precaution around mask wearing and sanitation.” She added that they often have youth come in and help, which is one of several options they have, as part of their 40 hours of community volunteer work to be able to graduate. Barclay said that the shelter is currently seeking some casual and part-time staff. Anyone interested in donating, considering the part-time positions or to volunteer, may reach out to the shelter at (807) 737-7499 or via email at [email protected].