The building where congregants of Knox United gather to worship has been a spiritual home in Kenora, Ont., for over a century. But soon it will be transformed to include a different type of home — a shelter for the area’s homeless.
This isn’t an entirely new idea for Knox. The congregation offered its gym as a temporary emergency shelter for four months in 2016 when the existing local facility abruptly closed. The shelter was staffed and supervised by the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre, an organization that offers social services and supports to urban Aboriginal people.
At the time, it was an imperfect but much-needed bridge solution until an alternative was found. Unfortunately, that new location could only commit to two years, and once again the area’s shelter needed to move.
After months of dialogue between the church, city council and the Kenora District Services Board (KDSB), it was decided that an underutilized 6,200-square-foot section of Knox’s property could be successfully converted to include a permanent 24-7 shelter, the first of its kind in the district. The city rezoned the church and its associated buildings to legally house the facility.
Church members were wholly in favour of leasing the property, says Rev. Meg Illman-White, the church’s minister. “Our congregation was already providing meals and companionship for homeless people,” she says. “Housing the shelter totally fits in with our continued mission. This is who we’ve felt called to be for many years.”
Extensive renovations of the church will begin in May to reconfigure the existing gym and area above it. The new space will include accessible washrooms and areas for sleeping, food prep, dining, laundry and socializing, as well as for much-needed support services. A 20-year lease has been negotiated, and the shelter will be managed by the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre and funded mainly through the KDSB.
“We’ve always been committed to creating a feeling of safety in our communities for the most vulnerable,” says Illman-White. “It’s exciting to be able to help in this way.”