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'Where are homeless supposed to go when everything is closed'?

When the world is being told to stay at home, a chronically homeless Newmarket man tells us what it's like to be left out in the cold

The world has got smaller for Newmarket’s homeless community as public spaces that once provided some shelter have been shuttered to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Where are the homeless people supposed to go when everything is closed up?” said Andrew Gould, a chronically homeless Newmarket man who advocates for those in his community and shares his lived experience at local public forums on the subject.

“How am I supposed to self-isolate when I have nowhere to go?” he said.

The sting of public health messaging to practise social distancing by staying at home as much as possible is not lost on Gould, who for the better part of seven years has been living outdoors or relying on the kindness of friends to couch surf for a night or two.

Gould said he’s worn down from trying to survive this winter, largely outdoors, and it’s taking a toll on his physical and mental health. He has a cold that he just can’t shake.

He’s become accustomed to being removed from McDonald’s at Leslie Street and Hwy. 404 by York Regional Police when sitting at a table and trying to get some rest. And on one particular wintry night after being told to leave, he walked along Leslie to a Royal Bank ATM vestibule, where he hunkered down for the night.

These days, seeking shelter is an exercise in futility, he said.

Newmarket’s volunteer-driven community meals held at various church halls have now moved to take-out only in light of the current health crisis. They once offered sit-down service, with an abundance of friendly faces around to chat with and trade views of the world.

“With the community meals, they’re giving them a bagged lunch or dinner and sending them back out to nowhere, to eat outside in the freezing cold,” Gould said. 

This week, amid the rapid shutdown of facilities such as the library, and reduced drop-in hours at homeless shelter Inn from the Cold, Gould took matters into his own hands and said he spoke to Upper Canada Mall management on site to ask if members of the homeless community could seek refuge there.

Gould said the Newmarket mall gave the OK for them to spend time there, mostly in the food court area, as long as they practised social distancing, and there was no sleeping, loitering, loud music, profanity, or drug use.

“Security will be aware the homeless community will be there … and will not bother you unless you are causing a disturbance or not adhering to the rules set out by mall management,” Gould wrote on Facebook group, York Regions Community Dinners Update, which he set up to keep the homeless community informed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I had no choice but to create a landing spot (on Facebook) so people could be accurately informed, and we are not wasting our time and bus tickets,” he said. “I felt a duty and responsibility to my community so they could be better informed about the community meals.”

“I'd like to extend my deepest gratitude to Upper Canada Mall for allowing the homeless community into the mall without prejudice,” Gould said.

Rev. Ross Carson, who is now retired and a member of Trinity United Church in Newmarket, said the local volunteer network that provides community meals in Newmarket and Aurora is struggling.

“The Aurora United Church council has suspended the Saturday morning rise-and-shine breakfast until the state of emergency is lifted by the province of Ontario,” Carson said. “Their experience is the impossibility of practising appropriate social distancing and still preparing and delivering breakfast. The risk to the volunteers and the guests is too great.”

Other community meals, such as the Saturday dinner at Crosslands Church in Newmarket, continue for now to prepare hot and cold food that individuals can take away.

The Tuesday lunch at Trinity on Main has been paused at this time, Carson said, and the church urges donations for Inn from the Cold and the Newmarket Food Pantry.

As well, the bi-monthly community luncheon at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Newmarket has been put on hold temporarily.

The Loft Crosslinks Street Outreach Van continues its service to the homeless community and those at-risk, but it, too, is stretched thin.

“An increase in demand is being experienced because of the difficulty accessing supplies elsewhere,” said Carson.

Given all this, Carson said an influx of people experiencing food insecurity may turn to the Newmarket Food Pantry, and he encourages cash donations to help meet the need in the coming days and weeks.

Meanwhile, Newmarket’s seasonal homeless shelter, Inn from the Cold, has also changed how it serves clients during the coronavirus pandemic.

Until further notice, only clients experiencing homelessness and shelter staff are allowed at the 510 Penrose St. facility. 

Volunteers have been suspended until further notice, who are the backbone of the operation. The shelter is racking up additional costs to pay staff to work overtime and it is in need of monetary donations, Carson said.

The shelter's Friday community meal will also be take-out only. And, as of March 19, drop-in program hours changed to 3 to 7 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

Clients and staff who enter the building will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 and asked to sign in. Homeless clients with any COVID-19 symptoms will be isolated until transfer to a more suitable site can be facilitated.

“The incredible clients are helping to keep the shelter clean and organized,” Carson said.

For more information on Inn from the Cold, how you can access help and donate, visit them online.

At this point in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, there remains about 30 retail shops open at the Newmarket mall operating at the reduced hours of 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., including Shoppers Drug Mart. 

Other mall tenants have temporarily suspended operations at least until March 31. The mall, itself, remains open to the public during its regular hours of 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Mall management company Oxford Properties did not return requests for comment at the time of publication.