A plan to build a three-story building at the Church of the Nazarene in Preston continues to get mixed reactions from residents in the neighbourhood.
The Freedom Centre, an addition to the church on Hamilton Street, will offer transitional housing on the top floor to serve the needs of veterans from the Canadian Armed Forces, and former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The facility will also house a community centre for various wellness programs and community initiatives for seniors and youth, including a community kitchen to provide meals for those in need.
“The Freedom Centre will have 10 crisis short-term intervention beds for veterans and will be a safe place that the entire community can utilize,” said Church of the Nazarene reverend Rosemary Redshaw.
“It took us two and a half years to put a business plan together. We’ve held town hall meetings and there were a few people that really had difficulty with us dealing with veterans,” Redshaw said.
Matt Gerth has a rental property near the future building site. He has met with members of the Freedom Centre board and attended a town hall meeting.
“People were very defensive and argumentative. I tried to ask ‘real’ questions about the community’s concerns,” Gerth said.
“There just seemed to be a lot of questions unanswered.”
The Freedom Centre developed a community engagement and interview project to get feedback from the Preston community about needs, services, gaps and supports in the community.
“We went door to door and left flyers at about 450 homes,” Redshaw said.
“We had a survey available for people to fill out. This included six – seven basic questions because we want to know what people think the needs in the community are.”
Redshaw said the next step will be talking to veterans to find out what their specific needs are.
“We are ready to begin presentations and meet people We are now also ready to formulate a letter to Veteran’s Affairs and meet with them,” Redshaw said.
“We have the land, and we are already a registered charity. We’ve worked on our policies to include how the building will function and what the intake will look like on the top floor,” Redshaw said.
Redshaw has heard various concerns from the community about safety, drugs, and the possibility that the centre will act as a homeless shelter.
Gerth said that there is a lack of engagement between the church and the community.
“The church does run a few things like clothing drives but there’s not a lot of traffic. There’s not a lot of parishioners and there’s just not a lot of activity from the community’s view,” Gerth said.
“Maybe they need to get the community more involved.”
Gerth said the scale of the project is so large for such a small church. But he said that he is neutral on the project.
“I don’t think this is great for my property value potentially, and this could lead to other issues that we don’t really want to have in the community. But seeing the building plans, I thought it was wonderful, logical, promising and hopeful for the actual veterans,” Gerth said.
“I don’t think they have enough proper support staff. Our concern is who is vetting this organization to develop it? Who’s granting this? I certainly hope they will be accountable. Many people are saying this could become another Bridges, another emergency homeless shelter in Cambridge.”
Redshaw said the Freedom Centre is not not a homeless shelter and the board has tried to express that.
“The veterans will live here with full-time staff helping them get through the day. We are talking about people who have served us,” Redshaw said.
Gerth said he doesn’t think it’s a lack of compassion from the neighbourhood.
“But why build this in our neighbourhood? It’s not that close to transit and the hospital. There are other locations that might be more attractive for this type of facility,” Gerth said.
“And where is a model that we could look at to help better understand what these vets need? These vets will be from all over Canada but helping them, can’t just be done by one person. So, this community might not be the right place for them.”
Local veteran Jim Tolmie said there is a need for veteran supports and services in the region.
“As a veteran, I served 38 years in the military in various postings in Canada and in Europe including Bosnia. So, knowing what I experienced and coming back from Bosnia in 2002, and I was struggling internally," Tolmie said.
“I have been in the medical branch my entire military career and I don’t really believe that I was experiencing the things I was at the time. The PTSD that I was experiencing was not diagnosed at the time. I was experiencing the isolation, the hyper vigilance, and just fear.”
Since then, Tolmie has received treatment at Breakwater Institute in Cambridge.
“And when the opportunity came to be part of this organization, the Freedom Centre, it really spoke to me,” Tolmie said.
“Veterans are gone for a long time. And then when you come back, you have to reintegrate into your family. That’s not easy.”
Tolmie said the return home can seem a lot longer than going to war.
“The facility is paramount for many of the veterans that come back and are not the same, that are trying to readjust, to get themselves into a place where they have some common elements including people that they can talk to and relate to,” Tolmie said.
Tolmie also works with another volunteer organization, Vets Canada.
“I meet with veterans at 150 Main St. I identify vets who are living in tents here in the city. I know the need. I have worked with many of them. This is a big catchment area. There is a study that says that the percentage of homeless veterans is higher in Waterloo Region,” Tolmie said.
Redshaw said she hopes the Freedom Centre will be up and running in two years.
“We are a small church and I often wonder why God has chosen us. But we also have this acre of property,” she said.
Redshaw said the goal now is to find funding beyond the vision of the veterans but also a community centre for Ward 3.
“I think for me, it’s to see the miracles that have proven that we are on the right track. When we had the vision, we had no idea we were in a N1 zone. That allows for a crisis intervention home. We had no idea what that meant. But it allows us to build exactly what we had designed to build,” Redshaw said.
“And Breakwater, they are walking distance from us and all they deal with is first responders and veterans. It serves veterans coast to coast and now, they want to partner with us. Veterans can have a safe place to come, have supervision while they are here, and get the services they need.”
On Aug 27, the Church of the Nazarene will host a children’s carnival.
“We will have an information table. We will go slowly and continue to talk with the community. We are ready to go public and take it to the next step,” Redshaw said.
“We hope that the community will see this as a service to their neighbours and to veterans, people who have laid their lives for us, and now we need to serve them.”
For more information about the Freedom Centre, visit here.