Hot! A tale of how two cities deal with poverty – news/editorial – Guest Column
Updated February 26, 2011.   By Alan Atkins, Special To The Examiner

Cambridge is a city of about 130,000 and similar to Barrie in many other ways. This past December, staff, directors and volunteers from the David Busby Street Centre in Barrie visited “The Bridges”, a community-built homeless shelter and drop-in facility completed in 2005.

Its executive director, Anne Tinker, is the driving force behind its evolution from its birth as an Out of the Cold program run from her church for almost nine years before its realization as a permanent facility for the Cambridge region’s homeless and vulnerable people.

Until that time, the Cambridge region had no other emergency shelter. Anne and her fellow volunteers realized that merely providing the immediate basic necessities of shelter, food and warmth was important, but did nothing to address the root of the problem of poverty and homelessness.

Cambridge Shelter Inc. was chartered in 2000 and what began as a project of a handful of volunteers soon snowballed into a regional community effort. Small grants were obtained from provincial and federal programs with the Region of Waterloo stepping up with a $300,000 keystone grant that allowed the purchase of a vacant building lot.

Interestingly, Cambridge didn’t think there was a problem until the Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries produced a research report with their own statistics.

This was followed up with a research project by a social work student that included photographs of the places that the homeless lived.

I couldn’t help reflecting how similar this was to the “Visibly Unseen” project by the David Busby Street Centre displayed at the MacLaren Art Gallery and City Hall Rotunda in the last year featuring photos taken by centre participants. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Cambridge Shelter focus on community involvement beyond obtaining government support. Contractors donated time and material while a five-year capital campaign raised $3.5 million for construction of The Bridges, a purpose-built shelter.

“Cambridge Action on Homelessness” was established to invite other agencies to a monthly visioning meeting around solutions to a problem that affected them all.

This process helped them focus resources and avoid duplication of effort rather than compete for volunteers and financial support.

The shelter is three blocks away from the city centre and naturally incited objections from immediate neighbours, many of whom were local business owners.

The Cambridge shelter invited everyone within five blocks to a town hall meeting and asked for six volunteers to sit on an advisory committee. They learned about the objectives of the shelter and the strict code of conduct that required respect of neighbours or the loss of access to services by participants.

As building progressed, neighbours were kept informed of progress and invited to help.

Today, The Bridges has a $1-million annual operating budget with 15 full-time and seven part-time staff and 1,000 volunteers.

Aside from providing counselling for mental health, addiction and poverty issues, overnight shelter is provided for up to 40 people. The three-storey building includes 20 bachelor apartments that are geared to income and allow stays of up to two years.

There are also three family units that provide emergency shelter for up to three months. The facility includes a small library, gym and wellness program as well as intake to help newly released prisoners become re-established in society.

The shelter also manages a transition house for recovering addicts owned by private investors that charges reduced rent.

Almost all supplies and services are donated. A cube van makes weekly pickups of food at the Loblaws warehouse supplemented by contributions from Sobeys and Gordon Food Services. Since all surplus is donated back to other agencies, the shelter has itself become the second largest food bank donor in the region.

Needless to say, the involvement of local politicians is essential. The MP and MPP are active supporters while the Cambridge city council struck a poverty roundtable with a subcommittee on homelessness. The mayor attends breakfast at the shelter every Thursday as a visible symbol of the city’s hands on involvement and commitment.

So what are the lessons Barrie can learn from looking at a sister city?

First, we need to face the reality of poverty in our midst. As the “Visibly Unseen” campaign suggests, the problems of poverty go beyond the obvious. Many individuals and families in Barrie are inches away from needing the kind of support that The Bridges of Cambridge provides. That is an uncomfortable idea for many of us but understanding this fact is the first step. Secondly, we need to be rule changers.

Although we may not eliminate poverty entirely, there is much that can be done to reduce its impact on the victims and the community. We have the power to share our resources, time and talent and help others become self-sufficient contributing members of our community. This is not only philanthropic kindness but good business as well to create a thriving city and a vibrant downtown community.

Thirdly, we must envision what could be, rather than worry about limitations. Poverty and homelessness is not just a Barrie problem, it is county wide.

Every community in Simcoe County sends their people here since there are no other facilities available.

We can engage other service providers and community leaders through openness and cooperation.

Barrie can be the leader in focusing resources by imagining a better solution and walking the talk.

The David Busby Centre will be visiting other communities to learn how they have dealt with poverty and homelessness and plans to share those lessons with the people of Barrie.

What we have learned so far is that our city has everything we need to provide our least advantaged neighbours with dignity, trust and support. Perhaps all we lack is the vision and the will to realize our true stature.

Alan Atkins is the chair of the communications committee of the David Busby Street Centre. For more information, contact 739-6916 or visit

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