Following a year of ups and downs, Ark Aid Mission is moving back to its home at 696 Dundas St. after temporarily running services out of a church on Richmond Row in London, Ont.
First Baptist has been allowing Ark Aid to provide its day programs and services out of its basement since last spring after a fire ravaged the non-profit in May 2022.
Sarah Campbell, executive director of Ark Aid, said that as it continues to pack up on Friday, “it’s been a day full of emotion.”
“We are eternally grateful for the use of the space here at First Baptist Church,” she said. “It’s been such an interesting journey over the last year between not having heat, needing to argue the zoning of the space, and working with the Richmond Row businesses to try to create safety and community and care in the core for everybody. So, it has been interesting and challenging, and also beautiful and rewarding.”
In highlighting one of the non-profit’s challenges from this past year, a dispute began back in September when the city notified First Baptist that the drop-in day services being offered by Ark Aid, including meals, laundry, showers, health-care services, and more, were in violation of its zoning designation as a place of worship.
At the time, city officials said that they had received complaints from neighbours about the services being delivered, and stated that “because the mission was providing them as a separate entity, they weren’t operating as a place of worship but rather as an assembly hall, which wasn’t a permitted use under the zoning.”
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The city’s decision prompted push-back from the community, including from other faith leaders who worried what the zoning infraction could mean for other places of worship that provide similar services.
The zoning infraction order against the church was later dropped by the city in November.
Reflecting over the last year, Campbell said that Ark Aid was able to serve “upwards of 400 people at times per day from” the location at First Baptist, citing that it is “grateful to have done it.”
Also, as of Friday, Ark Aid has stopped serving meals out of the church. However, the kitchen will still be used at First Baptist as renovations are still underway for the non-profit, but attendees will now be given food as well as other services at the Old East Village location.
Additionally, Campbell said that as funding from the city’s winter response program ends as of April, a number of the non-profit’s paid staff will be let go, dropping to 20 from 70 heading into the spring season.
“Ark Aid has been, for the last three years, a part of the winter response and ramped up funding, services, staffing. (But) when that funding goes away, we can’t sustain the staffing levels,” she said.
“It’s one of those bittersweet things that we get to engage so many wonderful people and meet so many people who care about this issue and contribute to the care of our community. And when the contract and the services go away, both our community members who are experiencing homelessness, but also those who are employed with us, experience great loss and so that is a challenge.”
The funds for around 70 Ark Aid-operated nightly beds at First Baptist, as well as at St. Andrew’s Churchy, will also expire as of March 31.
While renovations are still underway at the Dundas Street location, Campbell said that restoration costs have grown by $1 million.
“We’ve completed our main floor renovation, and so our shower, laundry space, the dining room, and bathrooms have all been renovated, and the kitchen is in process now,” she said. “We have the permit and about half of the funding in place to remodel the upstairs for transitional housing. … (But) we need to raise another million dollars to complete that component because of some fire safety concerns.”
Campbell said Ark Aid is fundraising to help cover the remaining costs and finish all of the renovations by the end of the year.
“When it’s done, it will very much align to what we believe the hub model that the whole community is looking to for housing and basic needs services,” she said. “We’re hopeful that we can actually align to this larger community plan where people can come and be sheltered and housed all under one roof with progression towards permanent housing.
“Looking forward, we’re also hopeful that the health and homelessness summit (and) the community focus on this issue (homelessness) in our in our city will yield both short-term and long-term solutions that will make a difference in the future,” Campbell added.
— with files from Global News’ Matthew Trevithick.