Thunder Bay

Warming centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., says they're opening for the winter — with or without funding

Staff at an organization in Thunder Bay, Ont., says they will do whatever it takes to keep people warm this winter, and have unofficially opened for the season even though they haven't received any funding yet.

Social services board says there is still some funding to be distributed for this winter

A woman wearing a flannel red shirt smiles at the camera.
Georgina McKinnon, executive director of PACE in Thunder Bay, Ont., says they will do whatever they have to in order to keep people warm this winter. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Staff at an organization in Thunder Bay, Ont., says they will do whatever it takes to keep people warm this winter, and have unofficially opened their warming centre for the season.

Georgina McKinnon, executive director at PACE (People Advocating for Change through Empowerment), says they kept about 50 people warm each day during the first weekend in December, as temperatures dropped to about -20 C.

But the warming centre, which has relied on money from the municipality for the past two winters, hasn't yet received any funding to officially open its doors.

"PACE was only closed for the first week of COVID in March 2020, and since then we've been open every day. I have three full-time staff that I get funding for, so those three people have been working non-stop," McKinnon told CBC News.

"Without the ability to hire extra staff, it's going to put a lot more pressure … I don't know how long my staff can go," she said, adding her staff are facing burnout trying to keep people warm and facilitate the mental health and addictions programming they are actually funded to run.

A photo of the inside of the PACE building, showing some people using computers, as well as donated clothes hanging up.
There are donated clothes inside the PACE building for people who may need them. Others come to the building to use the computers. (Logan Turner/CBC)

While a warming centre on the city's north side received funding to open last month, the need on the south-side is great, McKinnon said.

Last Monday, a woman that came into PACE was sent for medical attention because she had severe frostbite and cellulitis on her feet.

"It's from walking around in the cold, and sleeping in tent city, not staying warm enough."

'Homey,' and safe

James Christopher Dawson, who's been living at Shelter House, an emergency shelter, for about a year now, says he uses PACE on a daily basis.

"It's warm, number one. I love the skylights. It's homey, I have nowhere to go and it's safe," he told CBC News.

If PACE's warming centre wasn't open, Dawson said there's a couple other businesses in the area where he can briefly warm up, but it's not the same.

"It's a long haul down [to those places] … and they will let you in. They are very kind, but you know, it's for customers," Dawson said.

McKinnon said part of the reason they haven't received funding yet is because she "did drop the ball."

After a devastating year for McKinnon and her family, experiencing "quite a few really hard things," along with a few missed emails, McKinnon missed the original application deadline. She has since re-applied and says she is optimistic the funding will come through because it's a necessary service.

A range of paintings hang on the wall.
Artwork made by people using the PACE (People Advocating for Change through Empowerment) mental health and addictions programming hangs on the walls of the building. (Logan Turner/CBC)

But the missed deadline points to the burden she carries, and capacity challenges within many of the organizations providing critical outreach services that are held together with a shoe-string budget, McKinnon added.

"I don't want to call down our funders, because they're there for us. It's just — and I've had my other agency heads say the same thing — it's unfortunate that we have to apply for funding [every year] in order to keep people safe in Thunder Bay."

Concerns about planning for cold weather

Leading up to this winter especially, a number of agencies expressed concerns about not receiving funding announcements early enough to plan for the cold weather.

Bill Bradica says there may have been some confusion with application processes because of changes to the funding streams, with "some of the organizations not applying until much later in the year."

A man wearing a grey suit and an orange shirt stands outside in the winter and smiles at the camera.
Bill Bradica is the chief administrative officer for the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board, which distributes and manages funding for a number of social services in the region. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Bradica is the chief administrative officer with the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (TBDSSAB). The board hands out the social services relief fund, which ends this December, and the homelessness prevention program, which is a new amalgamated provincial funding stream that started this year.

He added there are two key reasons why organizations have to keep reapplying for the money to run their programs.

Funding from the province is not guaranteed from year to year, Bradica said, so while they usually know what their funding allocations will be for the next three years for planning purposes, they still don't know what their budget will look like come April.

There is more transitional, supportive and affordable housing currently being built in the Thunder Bay district, Bradica added, which he says will hopefully reduce the need for these short-term emergency measures.

"Eventually, things like warming centres, food banks and emergency shelters will no longer be needed because we will get to a point where people will actually have a more permanent place to live," he said.

As an example, Bradica pointed to Ontario's recent announcement of about $400,000 for Dilico Anishinabek Family Care to convert an office building into a 10-unit youth transitional home, and about $1.3 million for Matawa First Nations Management to construct six two-bedroom affordable housing units.

"They're relatively small announcements, but we've had a number of them that are more capital [projects] and there is supportive money attached," Bradica said.

In the meantime, Bradica says they will continue to fund emergency supports in the city. He added the TBDSSAB expects to make a funding announcement shortly for more emergency services operating this winter.