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Inside the building becoming largest overnight winter homeless shelter

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Ark Aid Street Mission has just weeks to convert a church building into a life-saving refuge from the cold this winter — and it’s going to take the community’s help to do it.

A day after city council narrowly approved the former daycare behind Bishop Cronyn Memorial Church at 432 William St. into 65 overnight shelter spaces this winter, CTV News was granted access by the agencies behind this winter’s Cold Weather Response to Homelessness.

“There were so many questions about what is the space exactly,” said Sarah Campbell, executive director of Ark Aid Street Mission. “I’m hoping that we can demonstrate that we’re closer, not further away, from the building being prepared. Our number one barrier is definitely going to be staffing.”

On Thursday, several councillors expressed skepticism about The Ark’s plan to quickly renovate and secure the proper occupancy approvals in time for the proposed Jan. 8, 2024 opening date.

“Start dates are in question, the building itself is not suitable for this,” argued Deputy Mayor Shawn Lewis during the lengthy debate.

With Campbell watching from the public viewing gallery, council eventually approved $1.4 million for the location, the largest component of 120 overnight spaces that will operate across four locations until May 31.

A tour of the mothballed space reveals its potential, including large rooms for mattresses, bathrooms on each floor, a laundry room, elevators, a private entrance, a small outdoor courtyard, and staffing areas.

The to-do list includes upgrading some child-sized toilets, fixing a leak in a stairwell, and installing an adequate security system.

However, renovating and outfitting the building isn’t Campbell’s greatest concern.

Sector-wide staffing shortages could require opening the shelter spaces in stages.

Sarah Campbell of Ark Aid Street Mission and Pam Hill of CMHA Thames Valley invite CTV News for a tour inside what will be London’s largest winter shelter. Nov. 29, 2023. (Daryl Newcombe/CTV News London)“If you have experience in human services, or you simply want to contribute, we can train you,” Campbell explained. “This is a great opportunity to serve our community in an important way.”

“The need is phenomenal this winter, and we are hearing that the need is increasing,” explained Pam Hill from Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services.

CMHA Thames Valley will be operating 25 overnight spaces between its Coffeehouse on Hamilton Road and My Sisters’ Place.

“The urgency has caused us to think more deeply about the possibilities and to waste nothing,” Hill said.

Both organizations operating winter overnight spaces have committed to meaningful communication with the surrounding neighbourhoods.

“We have experience working with this community. We know what winter beds are like and we know that the sooner we can engage with the community the better,” Campbell said.

PHOTO GALLERY: Inside look at London overnight shelter

“Our goal of course is always to mitigate those problems long before the neighbours have to deal with them in anyway,” added Hill.

To get the overnight spaces in the former daycare open in early January, The Ark will need people willing to assist with the renovations and cleaning — both volunteers and professional tradespeople.

Campbell is looking for Londoners to rally to the call.

“I am concerned,” admitted Campbell. “If we are unable to meet those timelines it will be because of that human element. The reality of that we will do everything we can and open in a phased approach so that the most people get inside and get warmth as we are able to.”

An estimated 2,000 Londoners are experiencing homelessness, including about 600 high-needs individuals.

The 120 overnight cold weather spaces approved by council across four locations will cost $3 million.

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