UPDATE: Since this story was published on Thursday, Ark Aid Mission revealed that, with the help of the community, it had obtained the $20,000 needed to purchase and install temporary air conditioning.
“Hopefully by early next week, we’ll be able to reopen our doors and provide service with some air conditioning in our space,” Sarah Campbell, Ark’s executive director, said on Friday.
“We’ve had people bring us water and freezies and we’ve really seen some wonderful community support in the last day or so.”
The original story as posted Thursday can be read below.
A lack of air conditioning forced Ark Aid Street Mission to close its temporary space at a Richmond Row church on Wednesday amid days of sweltering heat which forecasters say will continue into the weekend.
The mission has been operating out of the basement of the First Baptist Church as its main Dundas Street location in the Old East Village is being renovated, a process that’s expected to take until March of next year.
While that work has been underway, the mission moved its day programs and services to the basement of the church in April. There, the agency has assisted hundreds of people every day with meals, laundry, showers, health-care services, recreation programs and more.
Several of those programs came to a halt on Wednesday, as stifling temperatures in the low-to-mid 30s were recorded inside.
“We thought that (it) being a basement … that it would be the coolest spot in the church, it’s a big concrete building,” Sarah Campbell, Ark’s executive director said. “We were wrong.”
“When you bring, between staff and volunteers and community members, you know, 150, 200, 300 people even at times coming through the space in an hour or two, it gets hot really quickly. Plus we do cooking.”
The mission has had to pause its laundry and shower program as a result, while its kitchen has had to order in hot foods to maintain its lunch and dinner meal programs.
With the space closed, Campbell says meals will be served at the church but will be eaten in nearby Victoria Park where there is shade and public washrooms.
Londoners are being invited to join in and eat their lunch or dinner in the park to call attention to what the mission says is a lack of cool places where the city’s vulnerable can go to escape the heat and receive services for their basic needs.
“As we’re closing our doors, there is no open doors to our community members. What we find disproportionately is that homeless folks and people who appear impoverished or marginalized in some way … are asked to leave public spaces often,” Campbell said.
“By being together, we can actually demonstrate that, you know what? We welcome all Londoners to our public spaces. And I think that that’s one way that we can encourage more spaces to be open to these marginalized populations.”
The city operates four cooling centres in the city, however none of them are located in the downtown core. Those looking to get cool are able to visit the Central branch of the London Public Library during business hours, the city says.
As of this month, around 1,850 people were on the city’s by-name list, a real-time list of those experiencing homelessness in the community, according to city officials — a decline from about 1,900 in June. There are a little over 300 shelter beds in the community, the city says.
“Our city has been taking strides to address this issue, and certainly during COVID, when there was some COVID funding, we were able to even expand the offerings of those services in the City of London,” Campbell said.
“But we are in a much more constrained environment from a funding perspective, and so those opportunities are much less.”
Around 325 people in the city are what’s considered to be chronically homeless, meaning they have spent more than 180 cumulative days in a shelter or a place that’s not housing in the last 12 months, a figure the city says has only risen by 20 since 2019.
In addition roughly 5,900 people sit on a waiting list for rent-geared-to-income-housing.
Campbell says the mission would like to bring in temporary air conditioning for the remainder of the summer, but says it will cost an estimated $20,000 to do so. The mission, she says, has asked the city for assistance and is looking for public donations to purchase the equipment and install it.
In an interview, Kevin Dickens, deputy city manager of social and health development for the city, said that while the municipality was trying to play a support piece with Ark, it was not involved in the selection of the location and isn’t a funder of the programs that Ark operates.
“We’re kind of coming at this from a bit of an outside perspective and being asked to engage and intervene to correct some of the challenges with the location,” he said.
Dickens said the city offered recommendations to Ark and sat down with officials to discuss and address immediate concerns and pressure points, including complaints from merchants on Richmond Row.
According to Campbell, the mission has received complaints from businesses that its presence had attracted visible homelessness and was deterring people from coming downtown, something she says they were disappointed to hear.
“We were in the midst of some back and forth with the Ark to determine what could we do to address some of the immediate concerns around providing some privacy and to create a safe space for people to access services,” Dickens said. The city, he said, offered to provide supports for things like overhead canopies, umbrellas, and tables to create a space where people could gather outside.
However, because the municipality was not involved in the third-party rental agreement, he says he doesn’t think it would be appropriate for the city to be involved in the upgrades or infrastructure to the location.
“If we were to set precedents by getting involved in funding the air conditioning, that decision would be made at the same time we’re being notified by the Ark that they’re actively looking to relocate. I feel like that would be a tricky situation to navigate in terms of providing the infrastructure in a building that could possibly not even be the location that services are provided in,” he said.
Dickens noted there were municipally-funded service providers in the city without air conditioning in some capacity or another. The city, he says, wouldn’t be in a position to fund capital improvements without considering that there would also be funding requests from those other providers.
“It’s not like we can’t help the Ark because we have to help everybody, it’s we would love to help everybody, but there would need to be a process in place for that,” he said.
The city will continue to work with Ark to find a solution to the problem, and is happy to play a facilitator role between the mission and other service providers in the city, he added.
“We’ll continue to make recommendations regarding things that could be done in the immediate term to hopefully help some of the situation over there.”
More information on the Ark Aid Street Mission’s services can be found on its website.