THUNDER BAY — "It's like stuffing clowns in a car," chuckled Holly Gauvin, executive director of Elevate NWO.
Gauvin was referring to her small personal vehicle which the organization is using to distribute supplies to clients until it can replace its old, decommissioned ambulance that finally broke down for good.
"These are all supplies for outreach intervention in the homeless camps that are happening all across our city right now," she explained in an interview Thursday. "It got very cold last night, so we need lots of extra gear, very little of which actually fits in the back of a Nissan Kicks."
Elevate NWO is a harm reduction agency serving people including the underhoused and those affected by HIV and Hep C.
It's looking to raise $80,000 to buy and equip a combination cargo/passenger van and to cover insurance payments and other costs.
Gauvin is concerned that grassroots organizations all over Thunder Bay are struggling to fund programs to support the homeless, and she worries about what will happen this winter.
"We're going to continue to see an escalation in infectious diseases. We're going to continue to see an escalation of people having to access emergency health care, we're going to continue to see people camped out in 40-below weather, and that's going to be a risk to health and life."
She added that the outlook for the coming months is particularly bleak because a funding shortage has forced Shelter House to terminate its SOS program which used a van to help people living on the street.
This and other resources such as funded warming centres for various local agencies during the pandemic, Gauvin said, "are now gone," while the needs remain.
She expects this will only put more pressure on the already-overburdened EMS, health care system and police.
"We're going to continue to see encampments grow, we're going to continue to see crime increase, more overdoses, and all the social issues that residents of Thunder Bay are growing increasingly concerned over."
If Elevate NWO and other groups are unable to intervene with individuals at risk of developing serious infections or freezing their feet in the cold, "I would predict that our hospital system is going to be in a really, really difficult place," Gauvin added.
She also predicted that the encampment season in the city will stay in place well into the New Year.
"That's a huge concern for all of us. That's a huge risk, and with all of that there's a risk of loss of life."
In terms of reducing that risk, Gauvin said "We're good value for dollar. We're a very inexpensive solution."
Anyone wishing to donate to the van fund can drop off a cheque or cash at the Elevate NWO offices at the rear of 106 Cumberland St. N. between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.