Emergency winter shelters a success, but challenges remain, report says

An emergency program to provide temporary shelter during the coldest winter months was a success, according to a city staff report, but many challenges remain when it comes to helping the city's most vulnerable amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Report recommends winding down emergency shelter beside McMahen Park

This temporary homeless shelter in McMahen Park is recommended to be wound down at the end of the month as the city's winter relief program comes to an end. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Emergency shelters set up by the City of London helped 75 people avoid sleeping in the cold over a winter when COVID-19 restrictions cut capacity at traditional shelter spaces, according to a staff report made public Thursday.

The numbers — outlined in a report coming to city council's community and protective services committee on Tuesday — portray a program that had huge uptake by the city's most vulnerable. 

As the cold weather began to set in late last year, the city, working with volunteers, set up two emergency overnight shelters using portable construction trailers converted into one-bedroom sleeping spaces. 

The report says the overnight shelters, as well as two drop-in day spaces, made a difference in helping the city's homeless population during the coldest months that followed the spring outbreak of a deadly pandemic. The entire program cost just under $1.6 million to fund through to the end of this month.

"The initiative provided this life-saving temporary intervention to individuals that have traditionally been the hardest to serve," the report says. "The goals and outcomes of the winter response have been met."

The overnight shelters were set up at two locations: 

  • 652 Elizabeth St., between McMahen Park and the Carling Heights Optimist Community Centre. It opened on  Dec. 23.
  • 415 York St., a parking lot near Colbourne St.  It opened Jan. 19.

Of the 75 people who stayed at one of the two overnight shelters, 52 had stays between 20 and 99 days in duration. As of April 8, a total of 43 people were still living in the emergency shelter spaces.

The report says the winter relief program was not only able to shelter vulnerable people from the cold. Dozens more were also able to connect with services, including access to housing and getting "paper ready" to begin tenancy at an apartment. 

And while the report says the program was a success, there were also challenges.

At the York Street location, freezing temperatures caused plumbing problems. At Elizabeth Street, there were complaints from neighbours who live on nearby residential streets. While the report says calls to police from residential streets near the Elizabeth Street shelter were higher than in previous years, the number of "occurrences" were in line with previous year. 

The city stepped up needle sweeps in the area to twice a week and, according to the report, found that the numbers of needles found (about six a week) were "in line with historical needles counts of the area."

With spring now here, the report calls for the focus of the program to shift from winter safety to a "transitional supportive housing model" — essentially helping people connect with housing and other services. 

The report says this means the Elizabeth Street shelter will be wound down while a reduced number of people will be housed at the York Street location. The report estimates it will cost $375,000 to keep the York Street shelter running until June 30. 

1 day space could stay open

In addition to the two overnight shelters, the winter relief program also included two drop-in day spaces — one at the Talbot Street Church, the other at Hamilton Road Seniors Centre. There were places where people could escape the cold and get something to eat. Between the two day spaces, more than 6,000 lunches were served by The London Area Food Bank. 

While the report says the winter relief program allowed many people to connect with housing services, it also says any winding down of the program will leave some people short of getting the services they need. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The report recommends keeping the Hamilton Road day space operating until the end of June at a cost of $100,000.

The report says any winding down of the winter response program — which was always intended to be a temporary, emergency response  — will leave many without access to services they need. 

"Challenges will continue to be seen through street-involved activity such as loitering, sleeping rough, visits to emergency services, police interactions ... as services transition and as some participants disengage," the report says. 

The report also says the program was crucial in building trust between city service providers and the city's most vulnerable, providing a foundation that can be built upon in future efforts to help London's homeless population.

"This initiative allowed for many vulnerable Londoners to experience life stabilization, some for the first time in a long time," the report says. 


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.