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The Bridges homeless shelter braces against perfect storm of challenges

Posted on: December 15th, 2016 by Cambridge Shelter

From the Cambridge Times, December 13, 2016

Cambridge’s homeless shelter is steeling itself to prevail amidst a perfect storm of increased need, decreased funding, absence of affordable housing and presence of deadly new drugs circulating local streets.

During recent years, staff would been taken aback if the number of people seeking overnight shelter were to hit 80, far above the 58 bedframes available at the Ainslie Street North facility.

Those alarming numbers are now quickly fading in the rear view mirror. In recent weeks, staff has had to accommodate more than 100 per night and climbing, a precedent-setting mark that includes seven families with children. Families are housed off-site in local motels.

Executive director Christine Kecser suspects the worst isn’t over.

“It’s not even cold yet,” she said, during an interview (Dec. 6).

The onset of wintry weather isn’t what most worries Kecser, her staff and volunteers, however. It’s not even the sheer number of people arriving on the facility’s doorstep.

The availability of new, potentially fatal drugs that include trace amounts of deadly ingredients such as carfentanil and fentanyl – both of which have prompted local public health warnings – has staff on extreme high alert.

“We had eight (non-fatal) overdoses in two weeks,” she said. “And we don’t even allow drugs on the property.”

As of Monday, Kecser said the homeless shelter reported two more overdoses at the facility.

The shelter, which strives to enforce a zero tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol, is now in a position where it must upgrade response training for staff and is embarking on steps to offer support to those who have discovered overdose victims.

The havoc wreaked upon the shelter is an extension of the threat unfolding in the community due to the volatility of the emerging deadly drugs. The problem is so urgent it prompted the Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy network to issue a regionwide warning.

The spike in visits to the shelter and the escalation of dangers presented by the new drugs are just two of the many driving forces creating never before seen challenges at The Bridges.

The availability of affordable housing in the area is vanishing in part due to the closure of local domiciliary residences, including the now shut down Marsdale Manor, which provided subsidized housing under a contract with the Region of Waterloo. Many of those displaced residents are high-need individuals, explained Kecser.

Despite attempts to privatize, Marsdale Manor was forced to close its doors in 2015 after losing its contract with the region when the facility’s owner missed the funding application deadline. The region offered transitional funding to Marsdale Manor while finding transitional homes for subsidized residents.

As part of provincially mandated changes in funding under the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative, The Bridges did not qualify for funding for some of its programs, including an addictions rehabilitation shelter for men. The Bridges was left to find other financial sources to make up for nearly $100,000 in lost funding.

This perfect storm of challenges – record visits, high-need clients, lack of affordable housing and presence of increasingly dangerous drugs – has left The Bridges in a state of desperation, especially as the cold weather and the holidays set in.

The homeless shelter’s fundraising campaign, Home For the Holidays, is making an urgent appeal for donations this year, especially to help families secure a place to call home. A gift of $250 can help sponsor a family to find a home.

The shelter is also welcoming donations to benefit all of its homeless clients, appealing for toiletry items, winter coats, hats and gloves.

Financial donations are also being sought to support programming and resources offered at The Bridges, which operates seven days per week, 365 days a year.

The shelter is now gearing up to offer its annual Christmas meal, which sees staff and volunteers cook a traditional dinner for those who have nowhere to go on the holiday.

By Lisa Rutledge, Cambridge Times


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