Kenora's Fellowship Centre on Water Street offers a snapshot of what's happening in the city's downtown, and in recent weeks staff have been under siege.

With the extreme cold of -40 wind chill outside, between 50 and 80 people are coming inside at the shelter for meals. Some are fragile residential school survivors facing eviction from Lila's Block on Main Street. Others are young meth users coming down from a state of intoxication and they're looking for food. It all makes for some stressful situations.

"We need a breather right now. It's been really challenging on the staff," Bearbull says.

Police say the arrival of meth in the community is related to a rise in thefts, as well as break-ins. The result is a growing sense of unease among merchants and staff downtown, who are increasingly concerned about their safety.

For close to five years now, Yvonne Bearbull has been the executive director for the Fellowship Centre on Water Street. However, the last couple of weeks may have been among her most taxing. For more than 50 years now, the shelter has been a gathering place for the homeless and people on the street.

During a bitter winter, she describes the "terrible frostbite" she has seen on the hands, feet and ears of clients.

"It's been really hard, trying to help people not to get frostbite," says Bearbull, recalling some of the clients.

Boots "fly out of here," she adds, noting she's seen clients come in barefoot -- or wearing only shoes -- despite the bitter cold.

Some of the more fragile elders can barely move, and they aren't very mobile.

"Sometimes, it's really hard seeing people, the condition of their bodies," says Bearbull.

Since the mid-1960s, the centre has been offering a welcome to people, with the emergency overnight shelter and transitional housing added over time. With 10 First Nations within an hour's drive, Kenora has been a natural gathering place. If you want to get a picture of what's happening with those less fortunate, and what's behind some of the crime downtown, the shelter can be a good place to start.

Aside from the lack of affordable housing and the legacy of residential schools, the introduction of hard drugs is having a devastating impact on a new generation.

As a precaution, staff are getting training with naloxone, in case of an overdose on opiates. They're also careful to watch out for needles discarded by meth users, even though some can be hard to see under the snow.

"It's been so hard seeing the young people so violated by a drug," Bearbull says.

The city's downtown is also part of a reform in the legal system, which is meant to alleviate the pressure on social services, as well as reduce the number of people on the street. Last year's survey for the district services board said there were 223 homeless people in the city.

At the shelter, staff are looking for more support, as they deal with the struggles addicts have in trying to shake their dependence.

"That's been really hard for us to see our young people go through that and try to get help for them," Bearbull says. "Sometimes there's no place for us to turn to get them help. Sometimes all we can do is call police."

Despite the challenges, staff at the Fellowship Centre continue to try and keep an open-door policy, even for the young meth users who can be hard to direct, control or even communicate with at times.

More than two years ago, the shelter announced it would be ending their overnight program. The constant struggle to fund the operation and keep it going had finally become too much for them.

As a result, the health unit agreed to house the emergency shelter for two years, before it was moved to the service hub earlier this year. Still, this new space next to Knox United is also busy, Bearbull says, and the overflow has been coming back to the Fellowship Centre.

On an average night, staff at the centre have been seeing 10 to 13 overnight visitors, and Bearbull acknowledges that's what they were seeing, before they closed the overnight service more than two years ago.

While the new resources at the service hub are very encouraging, she continues, the original issues that led to the centre making the decision to close the overnight shelter more than two years ago haven't gone away, and staff are in need of a break.

For more information:

'One-stop shop' shelter to open today

Kenora not getting its fair share, city

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