The building that houses the volunteer-run Fort Frances Family Centre on Scott Street was recently sold by the landlord and the centre will soon relocate to the east side of the Volunteer Bureau on Fourth Street West.
“It will just be set up a little bit different but we will continue what we’re doing, just helping people with basic needs,” said Monica Sus of the family centre.
She told the Times that they hope to be moved in by the July 1 long weekend and the centre’s volunteers are glad the centre became well known before moving to a less central location.
“When you start a facility like this, you can’t have it located where people can’t see it,” Sus reasoned.
“We are a little worried though that once we’re out of sight people are going to forget these problems exist.”
The family centre, which receives no government funding, serves 50-75 people a week, with a focus on addressing the immediate needs of community members who are impoverished or struggling.
The facility provides three hot meals a day, an emergency food bank, affordable clothing, hygienic supplies, and a non-judgemental atmosphere to everyone, regardless of their situation.
During the winter months, in response to the 40-below weather that came in January, the centre stayed open through the night to ensure everybody could get out of the cold.
While one hospitalization occurred in Fort Frances over the cold season, 10 homeless people in Sioux Lookout froze to death, demonstrating the dire need for warming facilities in Northwestern Ontario.
The family centre’s location, however, has been criticized as of late for attracting an increasing number of “street people” downtown.
BIA members say it has caused a decrease in business and contributed to more instances of shoplifting, loitering, and disturbances outside of their stores.
But relocating the centre isn’t going to completely eliminate the shoplifting or loitering problems, according to Darcy Kavanaugh, United Native Friendship Centre (UNFC) criminal court worker.
“It may reduce it but it’s not going to eliminate it,” he said. “Even though they are homeless, they do have a desire to socialize and where you find everybody is downtown.
“I can’t go downtown without seeing people who are my clients,” Kavanaugh added.
The family centre has also been accused of enabling people with addictions because it’s an unlicensed facility and there’s no strings attached to their service.
“A lot of these are able-bodied people, who can finish their Grade 12, and then get a job–but they don’t want to,” said Blair Anderson, owner of Betty’s.
“Then they’re being enabled by the [family centre] that is giving away food and clothing and stuff.
“Why should they work? They’re doing a disservice to them,” he reasoned.
Betty’s employee and BIA member Natalie Donaldson said there have been a lot of comments thrown around about businesses trying to “hide the homeless” but she pointed out the community already has many social services based downtown that assist people with a variety of problems contributing to and stemming from homelessness–places that are government-funded, accountable to a board of directors, with proper training and security for staff.
“I feel like the business owners are being demonized here,” she noted.
“Obviously, no one is disputing that hungry people should be fed and people with addictions should be helped; we only want people accessing the family centre to respect public space and be kind to others,” added Donaldson.
“Helping those less fortunate should not mean that staff and customers have to deal with being insulted, yelled at, stared down, and cat-called when going to and from businesses.”
And while others agree that the drop-in centre is “enabling” those with addictions by giving them a free meal everyday, Sus said that is the opposite of their aim.
“Somebody who’s starving doesn’t want to hear me refer them to detox, to treatment, to the friendship centre, to victim services–so the first thing we do is feed them,” Sus remarked.
“You can’t start solving those other problems until people have their basic needs addressed.”
Traci Lockman, who also volunteers at the family centre, stressed that they are not trying to counsel anybody or detox them, but instead try to ensure everybody’s essential needs are met, while directing them to social services when appropriate.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the family centre’s visitors that Lockman and Sus would like addressed is the actual amounts of money Ontario Works pays out each month.
“I don’t think that the community realizes when people get government cheques, how little those cheques are and how there are people who have jobs but their jobs don’t take them to the end of the month,” she stressed.
Under Ontario Works, a single person with no permanent residence or children receives $343 a month, while those also renting get an extra $390, totalling $733.
Lockman said it simply isn’t possible for somebody to survive on $343 or $733 a month, especially with housing and rentals being so expensive here.
“Anybody living on [government] assistance or disability–they are living below the poverty level,” she remarked.
Another misconception about the centre is that it’s allowing for drug transactions to take place.
Lockman stressed that the centre’s volunteers do not condone drug use and call the police when they witness a crime, although people currently suffering from addictions are still welcome through their doors.
“You can come here and get a meal if your drunk or if your high. I’m not administering tests but if your visibly drunk and causing problems you have to eat your meal and leave,” she explained. “I’m not turning anyone away who’s hungry.”
Meanwhile, government-funded agencies such as the UNFC require their clients to be sober to access their services.
“If you come in here–and as long as you’re not under the influence and you say to me or any of us you’re hungry–I stop what I’m doing and I go to the kitchen and I make you something to eat,” noted Deborah Emes of the UNFC.
“I think there was a perception out there that we were turning people away–we’re not,” he added. “We’re saying, ‘I’ll help you but you cannot be actively intoxicated at that point in time.'”
Anybody, regardless of race, is allowed to access the UNFC and be supported by their services as long as they aren’t being aggressive, are sober, and genuinely trying to improve their lives.
“But it’s not as simple as, ‘Come in and here’s some food.’ We try to connect them with all the services they need,” Emes explained.
The UNFC also hosts a “Community Kitchen” once a month where anybody can stop in and get a free meal, in addition to an emergency food bank that can be accessed once every 60 days.
The monthly gathering is meant to provide attendees with a sense of community while also trying to refer them to services that can help them succeed, noted Emes.
But apart from the UNFC and New Beginnings Fellowship that serves a hot lunch three days a week, there’s not any other places people can go to be immediately fed.
Sus said there are two groups who accessed the family centre, one comes for the three meals a day and the second group is a lot of full-time workers who won’t be able to buy more food until their next paycheque.
“People are making rude comments and it could be their next-door neighbour who’s coming here,” Sus reasoned.
“We’ve actually been surprised at the amount of even middle-class people who are coming because things are tough; they’ve ran short.”
A number of people who use to come to the centre for food have now gotten jobs at places like Safeway and volunteer at the centre as they can, according to Sus.
“Two of our volunteers are actually recovering addicts [who used the centre formerly] and they want to now give back to the community,” she noted.
Another individual who uses the family centre has epilepsy and said getting fed there helps him avoid epileptic attacks.
Freddie Copenace, who has been visiting the centre for about three months, said the family centre offers a unique service unlike anything else in the district.
“What they do is good,” he remarked. “They give you friendship, they talk with you, and they send you into the right place.
“If it wasn’t for them, a lot of people would be lost,” Copenace added.
Sus said the financial support the centre receives from the community is a testament to the fact that the public wants to see it carry forward.
“People are supporting us. If people didn’t give to us, we wouldn’t exist,” she remarked. “We feel they have voted with their dollars.”
Sus noted that some of the comments she’s received from business owners and the public regarding the centre have been very disheartening.
“I feel bad for the people that volunteer [at the family centre]. Nobody should be treated like that when they have done so much good,” Sus said.
“I don’t know how people who have lived here forever can be so insensitive to the needs of others.”
“Do you want to live in a community where we allow people to starve or freeze to death?” she added.
Sus said it seems like everywhere else around the world has been aware of the issues around homelessness except for Fort Frances.
“Now that we’re aware of it, we can see it firsthand–what happens with addictions and what happens with homelessness. We want it gone, we don’t want to see it, and we don’t want it in our backyard,” she charged.
Looking ahead to next winter, she said the family centre would be happy to partner with the Fort Frances Homeless Initiative’s Warming Centre to utilize their new location at the Volunteer Bureau through the night.
Lockman and Sus are grateful to all the different individual donors, groups, and organizations who have helped keep the facility running for well over a year.