THUNDER BAY – For Major Lori Mitchell, the opportunity to return to Thunder Bay to celebrate the opening last year of the Salvation Army’s Journey to Life Centre was an emotional moment she won’t soon forget.
It was Mitchell who was the driving force behind the $15-million project before leaving to take on the role of area commander for the central region of the Salvation Army’s Ontario division. On Friday she took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorating the opening of the centre, the celebration delayed several months because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“For anybody who had actually been in the old building, its day had come. And although we worked very hard to keep it clean, it didn’t have the space to be able to provide privacy and dignity to our residents and to really be able to provide the kind of programming that they need to really be able to move forward in life,” Mitchell said.
In addition to providing emergency shelter to some in the city’s homeless population, the Journey to Life Centre houses a number of year-round residents who are taught life skills to help them transition from the streets into a more settled lifestyle.
“We were able to offer what we called band-aid programming, but not really getting to the roots of the issues and helping them move forward,” Mitchell said.
Liberal MP Patty Hajdu, who served as executive director at Thunder Bay’s Shelter House before embarking on a political career, said the community needs options for people looking for housing and safety from life on the street, not to mention Northern Ontario winters.
The federal government contributed $3 million to the project, money well spent, Hajdu said.
“These are life and death moments for people if they can’t find safe shelter,” she said. “So what’s great about this project that it does provide people an opportunity to move from a crisis phase into a more transitional space and take the time to understand what they need to do in order to move forward in their own recovery.”
Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins, one of several dignitaries who spoke at Friday’s celebration, which also include the burial of a time capsule, said it’s not just a journey to life.
“It’s a journey of hope and opportunity, giving the folks who are struggling in the mainstream an opportunity to lift their spirits up and make sure they’re not forgotten about,” Collins said. “They are a part of our community. They are important to our community and they’re great assets in our community.”
Gary Ferguson, the centre’s current executive director, said homelessness continues to be a major issue in the community. While the Journey to Life Centre can’t eradicate homelessness, he’s convinced it can have an impact in lessening the problem, teaching people how to properly care for themselves and put street life in their past.
Ferguson said he’s hopeful with so much light being shone on the problem in recent weeks and months in Thunder Bay, even more can be done to find sustainable solutions.
“I think people are stepping up to the plate right now and they’re doing phenomenal work in our community. Homelessness is challenge in our community, but as a community, we can work on that together,” Ferguson said.
“Our facility does have an impact in working with the people and getting them off the street.”
In addition to short- and long-term shelter, the centre also sends a soup van out nightly to feed those living in homelessness.