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First person: The city’s downtown warming centre is a disaster waiting to happen

Reporter Jenny Lamothe was able to visit the city-funded warming centre for people who are homeless and the conditions there shocked her

I managed to get myself into the 199 Larch St. warming centre recently. I went at night when the downtown core empties and the real world of homelessness is revealed. 

The warming centre, which is located in Tom Davies Square, isn’t exactly an easy place for a reporter to get into, apparently. I have been contacting SACY, which operates the centre with funds provided by the city, for a few weeks now, trying to arrange a visit. I’d been told there were issues with staffing at the centre, and I stopped by the warming centre during the day, identifying myself as a reporter, just wanting to walk around. I was asked to get in touch with the manager, and I left my card; no response. I tried later, but my entreaties were met with silence.

Then, I got a tip that perhaps my viewing would be more accurate if it was night, and no one knew I was there.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting: something regimented and sterile perhaps, clinical, like the Off the Street Shelter, or at least, organized. 

The reality was much different. In short, I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Not only overwhelmed, actually, but very concerned for the people who use the centre and for the staff who are there to look after them. 

I don’t say this lightly: I believe the warming centre is a disaster waiting to happen. Not only is it at risk of being the source of another COVID-19 outbreak, the threat of death either from a drug overdose or through violence hangs like a pall over the place.

There is a shortage of staff, and those present are, to my knowledge, largely untrained and unprepared for the eruption of violence that could occur at any moment given the emotional and physical challenges of the centre’s clientele, some of whom are quick to react with aggression, given their living situation.

There are few visible attempts at sanitation, just a few bottles of hand sanitizer and the PPE worn by staff members. There are stains and dirt on most surfaces, both old and recent, with little evidence things are being cleaned properly. It is ripe for a COVID-19 outbreak. 

I can’t report the truth if I don’t know it, and sometimes, that requires seeing it for yourself. Now that I’ve seen the warming shelter, I’m worried that what I saw is an unsupervised powder keg waiting to go off. 

At a protest I covered not long ago, there was a man who appeared to be homeless standing behind the speakers, taking the opportunity to hold signs he made in front of the media gathered there. There were many accusations scrawled on those signs, but one sign he held piqued my curiosity: “199 Larch is a flop house.” A flop house, once used to describe a cheap hotel or rooming house, now means a place to use drugs.

The claim on the man’s sign stuck with me, but I didn’t really believe it to be quite as bad as that. So, I decided I needed to see for myself.

What I found was a cramped space with no windows, filled with people who are not cognitively able to comport themselves well, either due to intoxication or mental illness, or both, left completely to their own devices, which are insufficient, at best. 

Located in the lower level of Tom Davies Square, the warming centre is operated by SACY (the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth) and funded by taxpayers. A warming centre in winter and a cooling centre in summer, the facility is low-barrier, meaning a person doesn’t have to be sober to enter, but drug use is supposed to be strictly prohibited once inside. The rule is part of the reason there is a time limit for using the bathroom, of which there appears to be only one — a time limit is supposed to keep people from using behind the closed door.

With this rule in mind, I watched a person inject themselves outside in the courtyard, wait several minutes, and then enter the building. Everyone is free to come and go as they please, however, one man tells me he was kicked out recently for what he said was the mistaken belief he was using drugs in the bathroom. He told me, “I can use a lot quicker than I can take a sh*t.”

I had met this man before. I take a walk around Memorial Park and the warming centre outdoor area on my lunch break, talking to those living there, hoping to understand their lives better. 

I entered the building in a group with about five other people who were outdoors, some smoking and talking and one urinating. Near the small stairway leading to the underground parking garage there was what appeared to be blood on the ground, a small amount made to look larger when diluted in the snow. There were several needles surrounding it. 

I overheard from another group that there had already been one non-fatal overdose that night, but could not confirm it. 

The warming centre is located in what appears to be a section of unused offices at Tom Davies Square that have been cleared out for the purpose, with a long hallway leading to one large room and one smaller one beside it. There is a bathroom at the end with three orange chairs acting as a waiting room for those who wish to use the facilities. 

This entrance and hallway are very small, with people congregating at the screening table, and I was easily able to walk in with a group, all holding doors for each other, including the one locked with the keypad.

On the carpet in the smaller room, the one with a large and new TV that works but is without the cords to watch anything at the moment, are three piles of what appears to be kitty litter that had been sprinkled over other substances I did not examine closely. The piles of sodden litter were simply left on the floor. There are spills on the ground everywhere, waiting to be cleaned up or slipped on. 

The door leading into the building has a keycode lock and is tagged with graffiti, mostly names. Behind that first door is a fire door, which opens to a hallway. To the right is a table where screening is to be done and there are masks and sanitizer present, but I am not screened as I enter with those who have already been approved. While staff members are wearing masks and gloves, no one else appears to be; the masks are either missing or underneath the chin. 

On the night I visited, there were 45 people in the warming centre. However, it was only -10 out that night. The night before and the night before that, it was -35 with an extreme cold warning. According to others present the night I was there, on those nights, the number of visitors rose significantly. The number of staff members did not. 

There were staff members present the night I was there: one I know is trained in the work being performed, one untrained, both small young women who could easily be physically dominated by many of the clients, should a client decide to do that. There were also two men, one volunteer and one staff member, and from what I know of them, both with training based on lived experience, but nothing exactly formal. I very briefly saw one other woman, but I could not identify her, and only saw her once in the time I was there. 

There have been staff shortages before. On Dec.19, a staff shortage caused the closure of the warming centre, and a city bus was brought in to keep people warm overnight.

There were more men than women in the centre the night I visited, and more than half were visibly intoxicated.

The larger room has tables around the outside walls, each about four feet long with a plexiglass screen halfway as per COVID-19 protections. The smaller room has six-foot tables with a chair at each end, but not everyone is sitting at a table. Some are on the floor and some are wandering around. A woman, visibly intoxicated, was dancing while waiting for the bathroom. 

In the time that I was there — about 30 minutes, leaving before others noticed I was out of place — I saw dirty rooms and floors, with several people strewn about, many intoxicated. 

Did it, as the man’s sign suggested, look like a “flophouse”? Yes, it did.

One person handled the screening process, leaving the two young women alone in the large room with clients as another man did rounds. No staff members were in the smaller room, and one man there concerned me for a few minutes as his head fell heavy like he passed out, but then he gathered himself up and wandered off. 

If any of the people who were happy turned angry or if a physical altercation were to occur between clients or between clients and staff, this could be a very dangerous situation. It would take place in a confined space, with 45 people, most of whom are intoxicated or having mental health issues, or both. That is 11 people for each staff member to manage on what wasn’t a terribly busy night, people who are not overtly able to manage themselves.

I know many of the outreach workers at SACY, and other outreach workers in the downtown core, and those that work in the field. Because of my work, I’ve made it a point to get to know them. Based on those interactions, I do not believe that this is a failure at their level. The staff and volunteers are doing their best with limited resources and challenging clients, not to mention staff turnover, COVID-19 and simple burnout. 

This is much larger than those few staff who put in the hours each night. The city is struggling to provide care and services to the dozens and dozens and dozens of people living on the street, people who weren’t here just a few short years ago. 

But the buck has to stop somewhere. Serious attention must be brought to bear to the situation at the 199 Larch St. warming centre. I witnessed a centre for those in crisis that is deeply in crisis itself, and if something isn’t done and done soon, the situation could turn tragic.

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.