THUNDER BAY – A cold weather emergency homeless shelter, which has had its viability cast into doubt by funding uncertainty, will be getting money from the city to help guarantee its operation.
Thunder Bay city council on Monday night approved a $50,000 one-time contribution to Grace Place to operate their Out of the Cold program, despite a recommendation by administration that funding should be provided by the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board rather than city hall.
The up to 13-bed emergency shelter program began last year as a six-month pilot through a funding partnership between the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the federal government, with involvement from the Lakehead Social Planning Council for those living homeless, especially those barred from accessing other local shelters.
Last winter, 174 different people utilized the shelter for a total of 1,561 stays. In addition to emergency overnight stays, the program also included meals, clothing and referral to services.
Coun. Aldo Ruberto, who introduced the resolution, said the earliest the social services board could consider a request is Oct. 18 but Grace Place needs the money now to prepare to hire and train staff to operate the program beginning in November.
“The cold weather could come earlier, could come later. This is a time sensitive matter,” Ruberto said.
Grace Place pastor Gary Macsemchuk told council last month that the organization was awaiting a Trillium Foundation funding application, but they are not expecting to receive an outcome until early in 2019. Macsemchuk added a private donor had committed $1,000 per week for a total of $33,000 for this year to help the program continue.
Council also approved an amendment that if funding is approved by the social services board, or any other level of government, that the city be reimbursed.
Coun. Frank Pullia said the urgency requires council to act now, regardless of whether the city’s contribution gets covered.
“The question is whether we are prepared to provide the funds we need to put in place a program that has already proven to save lives,” Pullia said. “We have given $50,000 to the Muskeg Express that doesn’t even work.”
Coun. Rebecca Johnson noted she appreciated the importance of the work done by Grace Place but does not believe the city should be the one picking up the tab.
“This is not our responsibility. This is not city council responsibility,” Johnson said, adding council had spent previous years fighting the social services board and North West Local Health Integration Network to fund different health care and social initiatives.
“It’s nothing against the organization but I look at the fact of what we’ve done for advocating to take these kinds of things off our responsibility.”
Johnson also took issue with the timing of the decision, given the current municipal political environment.
“Most of us are candidates in an election. We sound just like the provincial and federal governments right now and whoever stands up here at the deputation table, let’s give them money,” Johnson said.
“That to me is wrong. We shouldn’t be doing this and there should be some kind of rule that doesn’t allow that kind of thing to happen.”
Those comments drew heated rebukes from multiple councillors, with Ruberto denying it was an election issue.
“This is a human issue and this is a Thunder Bay issue,” Ruberto said. “This is people’s lives. More important than anything else.”
Mayor Keith Hobbs was also among those who took exception to Johnson’s position.
“Quality of life is our job as a council,” Hobbs said. “Sometimes we have to be leaders and sometimes we have to beg the provincial or federal government to fund what we’ve already started. If we can’t lead on this one, shame on you all.”
A point in time count conducted earlier this year found there were 474 people living homeless in Thunder Bay.