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‘They’re not hidden when it’s minus 30’

Number of people seeking aid at Sault homeless shelters in extreme winter weather increasing, say shelter managers
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The brutally cold weather we are experiencing is difficult enough to deal with for those of us with warm clothes, food, heated homes, offices and vehicles.

But that difficulty pales into a mere inconvenience when one considers the homeless during this exceptionally cold winter, with more people knocking on the door of men’s and women’s homeless shelters in the Sault.

“When it’s as cold as this, especially over the Christmas holidays, we saw a big increase in people coming in here,” said Anne Penney, Pauline’s Place executive director.

Pauline’s Place is a local shelter for youth, women and families, its main office located at 923 Queen St. E.

“You hear all the time about the ‘hidden homeless.’ They’re not so hidden when it’s minus 30,” Penney said, speaking to SooToday.

“There’s always a spike when it’s cold like this.”

Pauline’s Place offers 12 beds for youth and seven beds for women at its Queen Street location, along with two apartments for homeless families on Mark Street, situated in the city’s east end.

“But it really wouldn’t matter. If we had seven women here and it’s cold as it is, we would just have to go over that seven and find a place for them. We do overflow for sure,” Penney said.

“If we have 10 women (over the usual seven), if there are beds left over from the 12 youth, or cots, we would never say ‘no, you can’t stay here’ when it’s this cold out. We could even set them up at a hotel or motel for a couple of days.”

“The most important thing is they’re not going back out on the street, so we would do overflow or find them a place, we would accommodate them in some way or another.”

Penney added even she has been surprised to see so many homeless families, despite her experience in dealing with the homeless.

A leading cause of families being rendered homeless, Penney said, is the rising cost of living and the working poor.

“Some of them work, but between paying for an apartment and utilities, they just can’t make it, so they go into the family shelter and we have the housing department and support services come in and they work with them to find them affordable housing.”

Those services include the District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board (DSSMSSAB), Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Algoma Public Health (APH), the John Howard Society and others.

“As far as how long families can stay here is concerned, we just work the best way we can to get them out to a safe place. There is no ‘two weeks and you’re out of here.’ The whole idea is to help them so they don’t return. We never say a time limit.”

As of Thursday, Pauline’s Place had a combination of eight women and youth at the Queen Street location, along with one individual at Mark Street.

The number of individuals seeking shelter from the elements has also increased at the Sault’s St. Vincent Place men’s shelter.

“As the weather gets colder we’re seeing individuals that probably spent all summer somewhere outside, but now the weather’s just too cold and they’re now looking for shelter,” said Nat Cicchelli, St. Vincent Place general manager.

"We have 14 beds that are called ‘emergency shelter’ and that’s for any male 18 or older who is homeless.”

The emergency beds are available to men for one day to 30 days.

An additional nine beds at the shelter are considered as room and board accommodations for men who need to stay at St. Vincent for a longer period of time. 

Cicchelli said St. Vincent Place, at 222 Albert Street East, served over 400 clients through the emergency shelter system in 2017.

“Our numbers have picked up…(especially) when you start to get into this type of weather,” Cicchelli said, adding the St. Vincent food bank has gotten busier recently.

Eight of the 14 emergency shelter beds at St. Vincent Place were occupied as of Thursday, Cicchelli said.

“We work with these individuals on a daily basis so when they do enter the shelter we look to set up a plan on which direction they’re going to be going, whether it’s at the end of the month or mid-month. It all comes down to if they have dollars (Ontario Works financial support)…if they have dollars then they’re able to move back into the community,” Cicchelli said.

“We work with the clients to be able to find them a place to stay, a place to rent in the community.”

Cicchelli said “about 80 per cent” of the men’s shelter’s clients are local, or men trying to get established in the Sault, as opposed to men passing through.

Cicchelli said it is always emotionally moving to see men in a homeless state, but said “the good thing is they have the sense to say ‘I can go to a shelter.’”

“Our doors are open,” Cicchelli said.

Along with homelessness, there is also hunger to go with the misery of the cold weather.

However, the number of people visiting the Sault Ste. Marie Soup Kitchen Community Centre has been down in the past few days, said Ron Sim, Sault Ste. Marie Soup Kitchen Community Centre general manager.

“We reopened Wednesday and we weren’t that busy because it was so cold, and many of the people have to walk here. The cold has really impacted the number of people who can get here,” Sim said, pointing to the increase in city transit bus fares as an added inconvenience for those in need, making it extra difficult for many to get to the Soup Kitchen.

It now costs $2.85 for a one way bus trip, with a monthly pass now $66.

“It’s only 10 cents more (the $2.85 one way fare), but 10 cents is 10 cents when you don’t have much money,” Sim said.

Whether there are more or less visits from the needy, Sim said he is glad the Soup Kitchen has food to spare in order to help them, thanks to contributions of non-perishable food from individuals, groups and businesses during a recent community food drive.

“Our city was very generous when we put that plea out just after Thanksgiving, and it kept going right up until Christmas so we’re hopefully good now until June through the generosity of the city,” Sim said.