Newmarket residents continue to face food insecurity issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a plan is needed to ensure they don't go hungry this winter, an advocate for the vulnerable and homeless community is urging the town.
"We would like the Town of Newmarket to work with the coalition partners of the Newmarket Supper Program to devise a plan for food security in Newmarket. This should be the first priority under the heading of community support," Ross Carson, chairman of Concerned Citizens for the Homeless in Newmarket, told council on Oct. 26.
Demand for meals programs has soared, Carson said, referring as an example to the Tuesday lunch program at Trinity United Church, which typically served 30 meals prior to the pandemic, and now provides 60 meals.
The community bread program at St. John Chrysostom Parish served 90 meals on Thanksgiving Monday, he added.
Financial support from United Way for a cook for two meal program locations, food expenses at three locations, and the cost of take-out containers at all four program locations has been a "godsend," said Carson.
During the pandemic, meal programs were expanded, so there is a free meal every day of the week available in Newmarket for the first time.
But the United Way funding will expire at the end of March, and if it is not renewed, Carson said he hopes the town will step in to help, especially if demand does not return to pre-pandemic levels.
As well, more warming centres will be needed in Newmarket for homeless individuals, Carson said, as current warming centres are being forced to change their operations to comply with pandemic public health regulations.
A warming centre could be opened at the Newmarket Community Centre and Lions Hall in downtown Newmarket, he said.
Carson requested the town hold a public meeting to discuss a permanent memorial for four individuals from Newmarket who died because of being homeless, as well as the possibility of opening a safe injection site in Newmarket to help prevent avoidable drug overdose deaths.
"That way, the people who endured what should have never have happened will be remembered," he said of a memorial. "Memorializing their names will motivate us as citizens to do better for and with our neighbours."
Lastly, Carson repeated a suggestion he made to the York Region Council in September that the region and the town rent vacant buildings in Newmarket and immediately turn them into overnight accommodations for homeless people. The town has the legal authority to do this quickly, he noted.
"You have the power to alleviate the hardships this winter straight away," Carson said.
While Carson had expressed concern that "community supports" had been removed as a standing item on council's agenda, Mayor John Taylor said that does not mean that Newmarket is deprioritizing those issues, just that there were no more actionable items.
"That doesn't preclude us from making new motions looking at new ways forward. Your point about supporting meal programs when other sources of funding run out is certainly a topic for this council early next year, if necessary," said the mayor. "We will certainly look at the warming centres issue as well."
Taylor said he would be willing to help raise the needed funds from the private sector, as well, noting that many local businesses would be glad to support those initiatives.