THUNDER BAY — Several programs that advocates say have likely saved lives on Thunder Bay’s streets over the past two winters will run again, as a result of nearly half a million dollars in new funding.
Thursday’s announcement by the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board, which allocates provincial homelessness dollars, answered grave concerns expressed earlier in the fall, after the Shelter House parked its Street Outreach Service (SOS), and NorWest Community Health Centres said it had no funding to operate its Care Bus.
Frontline agencies called the social services board funding a relief, but said the scramble for funds illustrates the lack of a coherent provincial strategy to address a worsening homelessness crisis.
Leaders of those organizations were hopeful, however, that Thursday’s announcement marked a move in the right direction.
That's because the money comes through the board's regular budget, rather than one-time COVID relief funds, raising hopes programs like the care bus, outreach van, and winter warming centres could secure permanent funding — something Thunder Bay–Superior North MPP Lise Vaugeois recently pressed the Ford government to provide.
Bill Bradica, the CAO of the district social services board, announced $496,135 in support for four organizations that applied to a homelessness outreach fund at an event Thursday.
The fund was enabled by a bump to the board's homelessness allocation from the province, though Bradica said there’s no guarantee yet that will continue in future years, with the province reviewing its homelessness funding formula.
Elevate NWO was the largest recipient in Thursday's announcement, securing $325,000 to support a daytime warming centre, an encampment outreach program, and an outreach van similar to the cancelled SOS program.
The funds will cover operations and supplies for the van, but Elevate is still fundraising for the vehicle.
“In the meantime, my tiny little car is being pressed into service, along with our staff vehicles, and we’re just making it work, because the need is there,” said executive director Holly Gauvin.
Matawa First Nations received $100,000 to support a mobile outreach program that sees workers travel the city offering support to people experiencing homelessness.
NorWest Community Health Centres was granted $50,000 to operate the care bus, which will run eight hours a day from Dec. 1 to March 31.
The service was launched two years ago in response to calls from activist group Not One More Death. The bus offers free trips between the city's north and south ends, with stops at shelters and other health and social services.
The Lutheran Community Care Centre received $21,135 to support its “quick connect” program, which partners with the Thunder Bay Police Service to provide support to people who are homeless or precariously housed.
Those outreach programs help build relationships with people who might not be reached otherwise, Bradica said, and have already demonstrated some success, connecting several dozen people with transitional or temporary housing.
Jennifer Lawrance, the director of health services for NorWest Community Health Centres, said the care bus couldn’t have run without the funds, though they won’t fully cover costs.
“We’re very relieved the service will be available,” she said. “The winter months are harsh here, and we know many individuals in our community are vulnerably housed or living without housing.”
“What we’re seeing is a reflection of traditional services and traditional housing not meeting the needs of our population, and the needs of that population are expanding. We’ve seen the pandemic has worsened the situation for a lot of people.”
NorWest hopes to eventually operate the bus year-round, she added.
Gauvin said there’s a demonstrated need for the programs.
The agency reported 15,000 visits to its warming centre last year, while its encampment outreach program assisted 127 people since May, helping some connect with transitional housing, though wait lists remain a challenge.
She said the program was still providing daily check-ins and support to 11 people living without shelter as of Thursday.
Aimee Smeltzer, with the Lutheran Community Care Centre’s quick connect program, said it delivers an outsized impact.
"We’ve been able to help 65 people in the community either with housing, getting Ontario Works or ID, [whatever] their struggles were at the time," she said. "We've helped people get into treatment centres."
"If we weren’t able to be mobile and get out in the community working with these people, they could still be on the streets."
The program is currently funded only through Dec. 31, she said, and is seeking further support.
It’s one example of how non-profits are left scrambling to cobble together funds for work that saves lives and brings dignity to the most vulnerable, advocates said.
“It is difficult when funding is year-to-year and there isn’t permanent funding for some of these services that definitely have an ongoing need,” said Lawrance. “We’ll continue to advocate for that.”
Gauvin is cautiously optimistic, saying there’s been a “really big shift” toward funding grassroots work on homelessness and poverty in recent years.
“I think there’s an appetite through both the city and through DSSAB to make these community-based supports work,” she said. “I do think we’ll get to the point in the next few years where we will see annualized funding.”
Bradica said the board wants to make the outreach fund permanent, but that depends on provincial support.
This year’s fund was made possible after the province bumped up the board's annual homelessness allocation by $320,000, or about six per cent. The board had requested a $600,000 increase, which Bradica said still isn’t enough to truly meet the district’s needs, with homelessness increasing over the past five years.
“We believe more is needed,” he said. “We’re trying to get a handle on what the true amount needed is, not only here in the city but throughout the district.”
While valuable, the outreach work amounts to a band aid solution to a shortage of affordable and supportive housing and of treatment for mental health and addiction, health and social service agencies say.
“At the end of the day, all of this is wonderful, but we need more housing,” Gauvin said. “We can’t ever lose sight of that. But we can definitely make people’s lives better and help the poorest people in the interim.”
Lawrance said the need for the care bus, which provided over 4,000 rides in 2021, is a sign more housing and supports are needed.
"While some of the services available through the care bus … will likely be needed on a permanent basis, we hope that over the next few years, there will be more action and more funding from the province to address some of the non-traditional housing needs in this community," she said.