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Cold snap spurs debate on aid

Councillors, staff spar over efforts during severe weather

The recent cold snap has councillors asking questions as to whether sufficient effort is being applied to help the homeless.

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

With temperatures plunging to record lows last week, many residents were looking for a way to warm up, especially those without a permanent roof over their heads.

To deal with the conditions caused by the dropping mercury, the Region of Durham employs a Cold Weather Response Protocol, which is enacted when temperatures are expected to drop below -15 degrees Celsius, or there is an expected windchill of -20 degrees Celsius or more. It may also be used when severe winter conditions, such as freezing rain or a blizzard, are expected in the next 24 to 36 hours.

Through this plan, the region partners with area emergency shelters to expand capacity through the use of cots, mats and motel rooms and to extend hours at certain facilities to remain open during the day.

The region’s three emergency shelters are Cornerstone Community Association in Oshawa (for single men with or without children, or couples with children), Muslim Welfare Home in Whitby (for single women with or without children), and Durham Youth Housing and Support Services in Ajax (for youth 16 years to 24 years old).

Diana Chapell, program manager for Durham’s Housing Services Division, told The Oshawa Express there was significant use of emergency shelters as the mercury dropped, but they were not at overcapacity and in fact, spaces were available on some nights.

Although a lack of available spaces for underhoused persons became a point of controversy in Toronto recently, Chappell believes things are well within control in Durham.

“We do have enough slack to deal with the situation,” she says, adding the region works with the Durham Regional Police to let officers know when there is increased space available at local shelters.

There is no specific funding allocation for the Cold Weather Response Protocol. All services provided by shelters are included in an annual funding agreement and reconciled as required.

Chappell did note the housing services division will be working with the region’s health department to create a “more robust response plan” later this year.

However, Oshawa Councillor Amy McQuaid-England believes more can be done to help those at risk at the present time.

She says certain homeless individuals may be wary of staying at an emergency shelter for a number of reasons such as the fear of being robbed.

To counter this, she feels the region should look into opening up community facilities such as the R.S. McLaughlin Armoury, as she believes it may be a more welcoming environment for some.

McQuaid-England also suggested if approached by a person of authority, such as a police officer, a homeless person could be intimidated, and it may be more appropriate to have someone such as a street nurse to share information about available shelters.

In addition, the councillor says while it is helpful to have information available online, many homeless people don’t have access to the internet.

She claims she has been asking for information on warming locations to be physically posted in the city at locations such as libraries and community centres for years, but it hasn’t happened.

The City of Oshawa’s website does not include a specific list of public spaces where residents can go to keep warm – the only municipalities in Durham Region that do so are Whitby and Pickering.

“We need to get away from the thought that posting it online is enough and get the information out to those who need it the most,” McQuaid-England says.

However, Oshawa Mayor John Henry says he believes the majority of those who require a place to keep warm already know what is available in the community and where it is.

Fortunately, while temperatures will still be chilly, there appears there will be a reprieve from the extreme cold over the next few weeks.

Anyone in Durham Region who requires assistance during extreme cold conditions is encouraged to contact the shelters directly as the region itself does not guarantee spaces.

– Cornerstone Community Association, 133 Simcoe Street South, Oshawa, 905-433-0254

– Muslim Welfare Home, 43 Dundas Street West, Whitby, 905-665-0424

– Durham Youth Housing and Support Services, 82 Kings Crescent, Ajax, 905-239-9477

Chappell encourages those who encounter someone who may require shelter during extremely cold weather to call 911.