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An unprecedented city-owned emergency shelter for women and families will accept its first guests next week.

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Nearly nine months after the City of Windsor announced it had purchased the former Comfort Suites Downtown hotel (500 Tuscarora St.) for use as the region’s first bricks and mortar haven for women and families, the renovated building is nearly ready.

The Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families will operate the 32-bed, pet-friendly facility. With rooms for 16 families, executive director Lady Laforet held back tears as she unveiled her organization’s new home for her on Thursday.

“This is really the first time that the shelter system has focused so heavily and so fully on families and on women,” Laforet said.

“We’ll no longer be taking phone calls where we tell women, ‘Sorry, try again tomorrow,’ because we will have the bed capacity to accept nearly triple the amount of women we can currently.”

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We know we need to address gaps to help keep people safe

tour of the building revealed immaculate and spacious rooms for large families and single women, each with an ensuite bathroom. The facility also boasts on-site laundry, a commercial kitchen, a large dining area, significant office space, multiple computer stations, and an 800 sq. ft. family room already full of toys and activities for children.

Lady Laforet, executive director of the Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families is shown on Thursday, June 23, 2022 inside the new facility.
Lady Laforet, executive director of the Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families is shown on Thursday, June 23, 2022 inside the new facility. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

A new arrival will meet first with housing support staff to help them move into a unit. Drop-in programming, on-site children’s programming, harm-reduction programming, and medical support will also be available to start, but Laforet said the space will grow “organically with our clients’ needs” over the next year or so.

Windsor MP Irek Kusmierczyk (L — Windsor-Tecumseh) on Thursday announced a $553,000 investment for the shelter from the federal government’s $4-billion homelessness strategy.

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“We know we need to address gaps to help keep people safe,” Kusmierczyk said. “That is why we are stepping up our support for frontline organizations and increasing investments into shelter beds and transitional housing for women and children seeking shelter.”

In October, the city announced it had used a $7.75-million contribution from the province to purchase the former hotel for use as a shelter. For years prior, the Welcome Center worked in isolation and unsuccessfully to expand services offered at its 263 Bridge Ave. location, which has only 12 beds and must regularly turn people away. Families were sent to motels without the 24-hour support or security features now in place on Tuscarora.

Ward 6 Coun. Jo-Anne Gignac, who spoke on behalf of her council colleagues, said the city “recognizes the critical importance of supporting women and their families.” As part of the 2022 budget, the city committed an additional $85,000 in annual operating funds to support the increase in the number of rooms available. It also allocated provincial funding for shelter services.

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Lady Laforet, executive director of the Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families is shown on Thursday, June 23, 2022 in one of the family rooms of the facility.
Lady Laforet, executive director of the Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families is shown on Thursday, June 23, 2022 in one of the family rooms of the facility. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Windsor and Essex County have roughly 460 known households experiencing homelessness, said Jennifer Tanner, the city’s manager of homelessness and housing supports. A group of about 40 community agencies who interact with homeless people add names to a shared list and do assessments to match individuals with services based on need. That group meets every two weeks to review the list and “see where more matches can be made,” Tanner said.

The Welcome Centre’s current location has been sold to another community-supporting agency, Laforet said. After a lengthy discussion about what to do with that building, the shelter’s board of directors determined funds from the sale “could really help inform a lot of our programming for years to come.”

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The nearest similar emergency shelter is in London.

Laforet anticipates the Windsor shelter will be fully up and running by the end of this month, giving clients choices.

“This will hopefully get, perhaps, women who are couch surfing and not tied to any services, at the very least calling us,” she said. “It’s that many more women we can head off and redirect to housing support services if they don’t actually need emergency shelter.”

The Welcome Center will begin to transfer single women into its new facility on Tuesday, Laforet said. She expects any technical issues with the building-wide key card system or kitchen appliances will make themselves known quickly, affording staff time to work out kinks before families move in.

The shelter will open under capacity, Laforet said, and the intent is to keep it that way. In preparation for the move, many community agencies worked together to house close to 20 families to keep demand low during the transition period.

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Artist Debbie Kay paints a mural in the children's recreational room at the Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Artist Debbie Kay paints a mural in the children’s recreational room at the Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families on Thursday, June 23, 2022. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star
The sign for the Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families is shown on Thursday, June 23, 2022 inside the new facility.
The sign for the Welcome Center Shelter for Women and Families is shown on Thursday, June 23, 2022 inside the new facility. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

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