Here's Ark Aid's new 24-hour winter response program for people experiencing homelessness in London

Ark Aid Street Mission is launching its new 24-hour winter response program for people experiencing homelessness in the downtown core.

The mission has day and overnight programs for people in the downtown core

Ark's overnight program is held in the basement of First St. Andrew’s Church in Proud Foot Hall. (James Chaarani/CBC)

Ark Aid Street Mission has launched its new 24-hour winter response program for people experiencing homelessness in downtown London, with the overnight drop-in portion kicking off Monday night.

The mission had 40 mattresses set up in the basement of First St. Andrew's Church, freshly made with a pair of socks and two holiday chocolates on top of each one in anticipation for their first set of arrivals. 

Socks and holiday chocolates were laid out on each bed. (James Chaarani/CBC)

For the rest of this month, as many as 40 people experiencing homelessness can get out of the harsh cold for a warm night's sleep from 10 p.m. until 8 a.m. Next month, and until March 31, the overnight drop-in will be extended an extra two hours, so people can access the beds starting at 8 p.m.

All visitors will get a warm meal at night and a snack bag in the morning. 

"This is not a solution to homelessness, but it is absolutely a life-saving measure where people can come inside out of the elements, be cared for, be welcomed, have a place where they can… be held, be loved and belong," said Sarah Campbell, the executive director of Ark.

Ark's executive director, Sarah Campbell, said that the program is "not a solution to homelessness" but that it is "a life saving measure." (James Chaarani/CBC)

Ark's daytime drop-in started last week a block away, at the Centre Branch YMCA, allowing people who are homeless to get indoors and warm up with a coffee and a snack during the day. There are also activities such as chair yoga.

Between 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., only 50 people can access the daytime program at a time due to COVID-19 regulations. However, Ark will be giving out meals at their head office on Dundas Street.

This program is part of the city's larger winter program, which also includes the two winter shelter sites run by Impact London and Atlohsa Family Healing Services. 

Last year, Ark started its "out of the cold" program, but only offered overnight shelter when the weather was -15 C or less, instead of a daily service.

The entrance of the daytime drop-in at Centre Branch YMCA in London. (James Chaarani/CBC)

"The benefit of this program is that it's central," said Campbell. "It's right downtown, so it's close to where people need to be for their other services in the city." 

"I think that it's very low barrier in the sense that people can come here regardless of what yesterday's stay was like, or regardless of any bans or restrictions from other services," she added. "We are going to treat each day like a fresh day and see how people do."

With this year's program, someone can use the overnight shelter and then go directly to the daytime one and vice versa, staying sheltered 24/7 if there's space. 

Winter for people experiencing homelessness

Kenneth Hammond, who also goes by "Red," has been using Ark's services for about 15 years, when he first moved to the city. 

"It's difficult," he said of being homelessness in the winter. 

"Red" said that experiencing homelessness in the winter is "difficult." (James Chaarani/CBC)

"I've been out quite a few times with a tent and sometimes even without it," he said. "But thanks to the resources I've developed working in the community, I've always been able to get blankets or milk bag mats so I'm not right on the ground or I'm not on somewhere wet, you know?" 

"Those resources make a huge difference," he said. "As long as you know to winterize, you can stay really warm in a tent."

He didn't use the program last year at all, explaining that he had heaps of blankets in his tent to keep him warm.

This year he's "looking forward to seeing it through a different set of eyes." He said he's applied to be a community safety partner, assisting Ark with this year's program as someone with lived experience.