Expansion underway at Brandon homeless shelter as temperature drops, need increases

The group that runs Brandon’s homeless shelter hopes to expand the space again because of new challenges caused by COVID-19.

Barbara McNish, executive director of Samaritan House Ministries, said between 18 and 20 people have been staying the downtown facility’s shelter per night through the fall. 

But when the pandemic arrived in the southwest Manitoba city, she said the shelter had to decrease its space from 25 beds to 12. 

“We recognized that come the fall we need to get our bed [count] back up to 25, if not more,” McNish said during an interview inside the shelter space this week. 

Samaritan House is the city’s largest food bank and also provides services such as employment training and a resource centre, on top of the safe and warm shelter. 

McNish said finding affordable, stable housing in Brandon has always been a struggle, but has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The shelter housed 162 people through last winter — an average of 23 people per night, with one night seeing 27 people cram into the space. 

The shelter had to decrease to just 12 beds because of COVID-19, but staff hope an expansion can take it back to 25 beds. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

That went up to more than 172 people through the summer months. McNish said COVID-19 has increased that need, with people urged to stay in their own bubbles, not socialize with others and be mindful about who you are letting into your home — that has left some people, known as couch surfers, out in the cold. 

“People can’t always house them if they have small children or if they’re expecting a baby,” said McNish. “With COVID you can’t do that.”

It was also given $15,000 from a new federal program this spring designed to battle the impacts of the coronavirus. It allowed the shelter to stay open in the afternoons to give the city’s vulnerable population a play to relax out of the elements. 

But McNish said with the colder months approaching, staff knew the shelter would need more space. Last year, she said extra mats and bedding could be laid on the floor to increase capacity on the coldest of night — but this year, it’s the physical space that needs expanding to make room for the beds. 

McNish said the facility has extra rooms, and has began a million dollar project that will see the building’s roof replaced, a new HVAC system installed and spare rooms — that previously weren’t up to current building code standards — turned into extra shelter space. 

Barbara McNish took over as Executive Director of Brandon’s Samaritan House Ministries in April 2020. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

“We’re not turning anyone away,” she said about the shelter still being open during construction.

Construction crews lifted the new HVAC system onto the facility’s roof on Thursday. 

“We’ll find space,” she said. “Nobody is going to be left in the cold. We’re just going to find the space we need.” 

McNish said about half of the one million dollars has been raised so far and is hoping to raise the rest by early next year. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has also put a strain on other areas of Samaritan House Ministries.

“Being open to the public is more challenging now,” she said. “We are a food bank. We need to get food to people. That is a basic need.” 

“People still need to eat and people don’t have a home to stay in. It’s difficult.” 

She said people are able to come inside one at a time to pick up hampers and other programs are being done through delivery. 

“We’re doing the best we can,” McNish said. 

The shelter is currently seeing between 18 and 20 people per night. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Renovations to the shelter and building are about half done now and she anticipates more space being open for use soon. 

“I think the pandemic has really put a stress on our homeless and vulnerable population,” said McNish. “We need to be there for them and if that means we have to make room for them, then we’re going to do that.”