The “Out of the Cold” program has accomplished five years of service this year in Fort Frances, offering a safe warm place for individuals facing homelessness. To address the ongoing homelessness crisis in the region, many service providers have partnered together in order to keep programs running.
“Things have been going really well this year. Five years into it, you sort of learn a lot. We have a lot of the same staff. So that really helps because then they learn the clients,” said Sandra Weir, integrated services manager at RRDSSAB for housing and homelessness.
Ten years ago, a housing and homelessness plan was conducted for the entire district. A five year review was completed later on to identify needs and where funding should be allocated in order to bring the best services to the community.
Through conversations with community partners and surveys sent to residents in the district, Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board (RRDSSAB) found that a homelessness committee was urgently needed.
“And that was made up of 17 different service providers that have a vested interest in homelessness within our community,” said Weir.
The Out of the Cold program started shortly after when the homelessness committee identified that the region needed a place to stay at night during the coldest months of the year.
During their first run, the program was located at the CN station. With limited resources, staff from the district social services strategized how to offer a continuum of services all under one roof. Later, RRDSSAB bought the church located at 324 Victoria Ave and renovations for the warming center followed.
“RRDSSAB was looking at a bigger picture concept, of course, with the support of the community and the homeless committee,” Weir said.
Multiple phases of development led to partnerships with the Canadian Mental Health Association Fort Frances Branch to offer safe beds on one side of the church, and the development of transitional housing which is still undergoing renovations today on the second floor of the church.
“Hopefully they’ll be finished sometime in the spring of 2023,” said Weir. “What we’re hoping for—because we have such a lack of services in our community—is that we were trying to find ways that were a little bit more resourceful.”
Today, Out of the Cold is located in the basement of the church.
Out of the Cold is open every day from November 17 to around April or May. Doors open around 8:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. Doors lock for the night at 11:00 p.m.
From November to December this season, Weir said the center saw 27 drop ins with an average of seven individuals visiting per night.
After five years of service in the community, Weir said that the staff have gotten to know some of the clients but that they also have a lot of newer faces frequenting the warming center. One addition to the program this year is the accessible bathroom offering shower facilities, and the laundry facilities for clients to access if they need.
“The purpose of it is to just ensure that those individuals that are vulnerable and homeless have a safe, warm place to sleep at night. This is a program that we offer for the coldest nights of the year, so five months of the year, it’s a service that benefits those individuals especially when it’s 40 below. The community support is much appreciated.”
Two gaps in the region still yet to be filled include supportive housing and housing for single individuals, Weir said, providing the example of an individual living alone who may not have the skills to pay for bills.
“We need a lot more housing, which does include families or seniors—I don’t want to take away from that, either—but housing for singles is definitely a gap in our community.”
“Sometimes it’s not just about housing, it’s about being able to also support people where they’re at,” Weir said, raising the question of how to keep people housed. “Certainly housing is important but the support services that go with it is really needed in our community.”