Open, when the world was closed
When COVID-19 closed public spaces vital for local residents experiencing homelessness, United Way funding tripled services to help Inn Out of the Cold meet the growing need
The man was a former guest of Inn Out of the Cold.
He stayed at the St. Thomas shelter for a short time last summer and now he was back with good news.
“I not only have housing, but I have a job,” he said during a recent visit to the organization.
“And thank you.”
Lori Fitzgerald has heard heartwarming stories like his before, in her role as executive director of Inn Out of the Cold.
But in this case, the timing is important.
The man got help because the shelter was open to him during a pandemic – when everything else was closed. Open all spring and summer for the first time in its 10-year history, Inn Out of the Cold gave him refuge at a time he needed it most.
And that was made possible because of support from United Way Elgin Middlesex, which provided funds to help keep the shelter open all year and hire staff needed to run daytime services as well.
“United Way really is part of the backbone of our services,” says Fitzgerald. “They do provide a much longer-term relational kind of approach to funding than many others, so they’re very invested in our overall success of our guests and our program.”
Already a United Way funded agency, the Inn got a boost from the Federal government’s Emergency Community Support Fund, which was administered locally by United Way Elgin Middlesex. The organization used the money to triple staff and services to help community members who were struggling in circumstances triggered by COVID-19.
On average, 15 people stay at the emergency shelter each night and between 20 and 50 people visit the downtown drop-in centre every day, says Fitzgerald. Guests include people experiencing poverty and mental health and addiction issues who used to take a break from outside weather conditions at a library or arena or fast food restaurant.
When those places closed during a province-wide shut down this past spring to prevent COVID-19 spread, people who had nowhere to go during the day were stuck outside.
“It became visible very, very quickly,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s been a challenge, but it’s been great to be able to be able to step in to meet those needs. The only way we’re able to do that is with community support.”
Because Inn Out of The Cold already provided emergency shelter, food and basic needs through fall and winter months, St. Thomas officials asked the organization to operate the new daytime drop in. Funding from United Way helped hire a program manager and extra staff who help provide food and basic needs, and support for housing and work applications – while following physical distancing guidelines.
While many of the 120 volunteers have not been able to work during COVID-19 because of age or health conditions, those who can have more than doubled their pre-pandemic hours.
“Inn Out of the Cold really is supported in every way by our community. Usually if we say on Facebook that we need a pair of men’s pants, eight hours later, we’ve got four pairs of men’s pants. If we need a new cot . . . we have a new cot – or two new cots or three – by the end of that shift,” says Fitzgerald.
“I think COVID has proven to us all as a community that we can pull together and get through a crisis.”