'A year like no other:' Out of the Cold pushes through pandemic season

·2 min read

As the winter season rolls in, Niagara’s Out of the Cold program continues its work providing meals and accommodations to those in need -- although just a little differently this year.

Sue Venditti, director of Start Me Up Niagara, which oversees the region’s Out of the Cold said the program opened its doors Nov. 1 with a few changes in place, but overall the organization has done its best to provide help for those who need it.

“It is not business as usual. Far more health and safety procedures all around COVID. I think we are really pleased that we are able to open this season, and we are able to accommodate the social distancing and health and safety protocols,” she said.

Some of those changes include mandatory masking, and hand washing. There are also changes to Out of the Cold’s meal operation.

Venditti said the takeout style operation, due to the pandemic, means less social interaction, an important component to any Out of the Cold program.

“We are feeding people, but we are not adding the social component which I think is so necessary,” she said.

Beyond the changes seen at the health and safety level, Venditti said so far, despite the ongoing pandemic, their numbers aren’t as high as expected this season.

“If I was just looking at the increased visibility on the street, I would think our numbers would be up. When I look at the numbers this season, we are not up that much. Then when you look at the new services that have been added, there are improvements system-wide in the region.”

There is, of course, reduced capacity to follow social distancing protocols, which does mean less beds than before. According to Venditti, last year’s Out of the Cold season was able to support approximately 50 beds, but average nights have seen more high traffic than beds available.

“I think our average was around 61 or 62 every night. I think we did about 9,000 nights of accommodation with 539 different people.”

While Venditti applauds efforts by the region to increase support programs available, she maintains that there remains a chronic lack of affordable housing not only across Niagara, but across the country as well, something that often brings people to programs like Out of the Cold.

“It is a problem across Canada, and it is not getting any better here, the price of rental units is going up, and the number of single occupancy units for people on low incomes are disappearing,” she said.

“Everybody needs a place to stay, they need a home. This is the first step on the road to housing for many people.”

Bryan Levesque, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News