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River City’s $1 million expansion offers beds for the hardest to shelter

Cathy Dobson The Sanctuary shelter at River City Vineyard church is opening its doors this Saturday to let the public know what their donations mean to the local homeless population.
Audrey Kelway and George Esser. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)
Sanctuary shelter manager Audrey Kelway and pastor George Esser in the new women’s shelter expected to open in March. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

Cathy Dobson

The Sanctuary shelter at River City Vineyard church is opening its doors this Saturday to let the public know what their donations mean to the local homeless population.

“We want to invite the community in and let them see the work we’ve been doing for the past three years,” said worship pastor Renee Card.

A $1-million expansion and renovation is expected to be complete in late March and means the shelter on Mitton Street will be able to accommodate women for the first time in its 17-year history.

Sixteen women will have access to beds on the main floor where an indoor pool used to be when the building was the local YMCA. Another 25 new beds will open for men in separate quarters on the main floor. Meanwhile, the shelter’s original 28 beds for men are still available in the basement.

Overall, the shelter is expanding from 28 beds to 69 beds with new men’s and women’s washrooms, showers and a laundry room.

Sarnia’s homeless population grew during the pandemic and more beds are badly needed, said shelter manager Audrey Kelway.

“We have to turn people away all the time because we don’t have enough room or women are asking for a place to stay,” she said.

The Sanctuary's manager Audrey Kelway in the free store for shelter residents at River City Vineyard. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

Drywall and painting is still ongoing in the expanded facility. When it’s ready, shelter officials intend to hire security, said pastor George Esser.

“This expansion is more for the hardcore population, people who can’t be housed elsewhere,” he said.

Women who are homeless tend to be more aggressive than the men, although there aren’t as many of them, Esser said. “If a woman is homeless and on the street, she’s in pretty bad shape.”

Audrey Kelway. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

“You have to get to know them and develop relationships with them,” said Kelway. “We show them love and it helps. Sometimes that’s all we can do.”

While the Sanctuary shelter caters to the most difficult of the homeless, violence isn’t tolerated. Angry people turned away because of their aggression have broken the shelter’s doors four times in the last year, Kelway said.

The expansion features an innovation that Esser designed to provide a level of privacy to shelter residents. Each bed is surrounded by a steel frame draped with a thick tarp that can be closed using magnets.

Esser calls them pods, open at the top with a foot or so of open space at the bottom. He said pods are a good solution to providing personal space without isolating people.

George Esser. ((Glenn Ogilvie photo)

“Being homeless can be very lonely but when you get a lot of people together, you can have a lot of problems,” he said. “The pods allow for some space of their own but also force them to get out into the community. They have to leave to use the washroom or to go and eat.”

The shelter expansion was planned three years ago but delayed by the pandemic and lack of funds. During that time, construction costs escalated from about $500,000 to $1 million.

In the last month, a single $100,000 donation from Progressive Auto Sales Sarnia provided enough to get the job done.

Reconstruction work includes new electrical, a new HVAC system, new windows and roof upgrades. Parts of the roof date back to the 1950s and still need work, Esser said.

Saturday’s open house with tours of the expansion runs from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m., followed by the shelter’s biggest fundraiser of the year. The third annual Coldest Night of the Year kicks off with in-person registration at 4 p.m. and a 2 km or 5 km walk.

River City is holding the event in unison with Coldest Night of the Year walks across Canada, however, Card stressed that the funds raised locally are spent locally.

“It’s our main fundraiser to operate our shelter,” she said. Last year’s walk raised about $57,000. Pledges are coming in slowly this year.

About 115 walkers are pre-registered and have raised approximately $25,000 so far, about half of this year’s goal. Local businesses have contributed prizes to encourage more participation.

“I’m staying optimistic we’ll reach our goal,” Card said. “Even if we don’t meet it, we’re going to have the community here to see all the good things that are happening.

“And to me that’s a success no matter what.”

For details and to pre-register or donate to Coldest Night of the Year, visit

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