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Plans underway to decommission FirstOntario Centre surge shelter; capacity to increase elsewhere

Hamilton's FirstOntario Centre has served as a shelter for homeless men during the pandemic, but work is underway to return the arena to its intended use by September.
Hamilton's FirstOntario Centre has served as a shelter for homeless men during the pandemic, but work is underway to return the arena to its intended use by September. Lisa Polewski

Preparations are underway to return FirstOntario Centre to its intended use as a sports and entertainment venue.

Paul Johnson, Hamilton’s emergency operations centre director, says the goal is to decommission the downtown arena as a coronavirus surge shelter by the end of summer.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — FirstOntario Centre transformed into overflow shelter for homeless men in Hamilton

Some of the 75 homeless men who’ve been living in the surge shelter will be moved to the Salvation Army Booth Centre, where $400,000 in funding from upper levels of government will be used to renovate the facility and increase its capacity by 30.

The city has also received $3.2 million in government funding to enhance drop-in services that are provided to men, women and youth by Living Rock Ministries, Mission Services, Wesley Urban Ministries
and the YWCA Hamilton.

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Johnson adds that Part 2 of a plan to increase shelter capacity will be presented to the emergency and community services committee on July 9.

READ MORE: Developers propose modernizing Hamilton’s entertainment, hospitality venues — including arena

The City of Hamilton has, to date, received more than $9.1 million in provincial and federal funding to assist with costs related to serving the homeless population during the pandemic.

Elected officials continue to lobby for further financial assistance, with Johnson indicating that there is “not going to be enough in the envelope” beyond about the end of August.

He’s projecting a $14 to 20 million shortfall over the next year, given current funding levels and “looking at a whole bunch of things that we feel are going to be necessary for the system.”

READ MORE: ‘Disappointed’ Bulldogs owner looking at ‘alternatives’ after Hamilton Mountain arena bid dies

Johnson says the priority throughout the pandemic has been to offer emergency shelter in a way that allows for appropriate physical distancing while providing isolation spaces for homeless people who test positive for COVID-19.

Only three individuals experiencing homelessness have tested positive for the virus in Hamilton’s shelter system, which Johnson says is a “testament to the variety of initiatives put in place.”

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