Out of the Cold opening early

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Staff availability will see the Out of the Cold Warming Centre open almost a week earlier than planned, but funding levels ultimately limit the duration of their season

As the temperature continues to drop and the colder months of the year roll inexorably towards the district, the Out of the Cold Warming Centre is once more preparing to open its doors and offer respite to those it can.

While the centre located at 324 Victoria Avenue was originally slated to open on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, the early drop in temperature and willingness of some contracted employees means that the opening date has been now been bumped up to Thursday, November 9, 2023.

While the earlier opening date will be a welcome announcement to those who visit and make use of the Warming Centre each year, Sandra Weir, the Integrated Services Manager and Housing Lead for the District of Rainy River Services Board (DRRSB, formerly the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board or RRDSSAB) said that they do see the comments made on social media asking why the organization doesn’t open earlier, or for longer, and she said that it’s simply just not feasible with the level of funding they are provided.

“It’s all in funding,” she stressed.

“We don’t have funding for a shelter, we never did, our district never did. What we did the first few years is that we were able to pull some money from, it was called CHPI, the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative. We were able to pull some money from there so we could have staff because we wanted to have a safe place. In order to have a safe place, you have to have staff, in my opinion.”

The Out of the Cold Warming Centre, located on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Church Street, is opening a few days ahead of schedule thanks to the willingness of its staff. The Centre will also be hosting an open house event on November 22, 2023, in order to allow the public to see the renovated space and better understand the warming centre and the functions it serves for those in need. – Ken Kellar photo

Weir also noted that in the earliest years of the Warming Centre, the organizing committee also did a substantial amount of community fundraising to support the centre, which they have had not had to do in recent years due to increased levels of funding from different programs, but at the end of the day, Weir said they still only have the funding to cover staff for 12 hours a night, seven days a week for five and a half months, typically from mid- to late November all the way through to late April.

“I know every year we start getting a little bit cold and people start complaining that we’re not open,” Weir said.

“But it happens at the end [of the season] if we close too early. Sometimes we have to make tough choices. Historically over the past few years, we found opening in the middle of November and staying open till the end of April has somewhat worked out for us. I know that this year Winter has come a little bit quicker than normal, it really has, and we have taken that into consideration.”

Weir said it really came down to asking their staff, all of whom are contract and so are laid off during the summer months, if they would be willing and available to get an earlier start on the season. She said the fact that they agreed is what has allowed them to bump the opening date up, the only condition being the staff’s orientation training, which is a quicker process this year because so many of the staff are returning from last year.

“We realize it’s difficult times and nobody wants to see anybody on the street,” Weir said.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a full-time shelter, we have an out of the cold centre.”

Weir said a full-time shelter would require them to be open 24 hours a day, which simply isn’t feasible with the level of funding they receive each year. Still, the team at the Out of the Cold Warming Centre do the most they can with what is available to them. Weir said each guest to the Warming Centre checks in, has their personal belongings safely stored in an on-site locker, has access to bathrooms, showers, a meal and a safe bed for the night.

Contrary to what has been shared on social media Weir also noted that guests at the centre do not have to be sober or non-using to make use of the Warming Centre, but they are not allowed to use on the property, and must remain in the centre between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 7:30 a.m. the next morning.

“Once somebody comes in and their stuff gets locked up, they’ll sit, they’ll watch TV, they’ll do whatever they want to do,” she explained.

“Some of them go right to bed, some will eat, but we do let them know that if they want to go out for a smoke break, they can at quarter to 11, before we close, and then that’s it. If they leave any other time in the night, then they can’t return. And they know that, they know the rules. If they can’t follow the rules, then they can’t come in for that night.”

Weir stressed that the staff at the warming centre do not judge the guests or tell them they cannot use. The staff can and will provide support and referrals to other services if the guests ask for that, but Weir noted their primary concern is just making sure the most vulnerable people in the community have a safe and warm place to sleep during some of the coldest nights of the year.

“Our clients have changed over the years a little bit,” Weir said.

“We’ve lost quite a few through the pandemic, with addiction and mental health struggles and stuff like that, but it’s always good for our guests to be able to see familiar faces. You have to remember, you’re coming somewhere to sleep, you’ve got to be able to trust your surroundings to feel safe, and knowing people makes a bit of a difference.”

The Warming Centre is in the final phases of opening up for the year, and Weir noted there are ways the community can be involved with what they do. Something the centre is always in need of is donations of food items to be used for meals or as snacks, as well as small winter clothing items like toques, mittens and scarves, things that might not be readily available for those who make use of the services. Weir said gift cards for grocery stores are also always appreciated so that the staff can go purchase some of the things they need for themselves, rather than just relying on people to bring those items in. There will also be an opportunity for those in the community to come down to the centre and see first hand just what it is the staff do there every night for those 6 months they are open.

“Wednesday, November 22, 2023, is National Housing Day,” Weir said.

“On that day, between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. we’re going to have an open house here. A lot of the community hasn’t seen the Warming Centre, so we’re going to open it up, start getting people talking, do some promotional stuff like education on homelessness. Just get the positive talk happening, so people can find out what the Warming Centre is all about. Because people are still unsure year to year what it really means.”