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Shelter beds reduced: Numbers sleeping rough expected to surge

A man naps outside the former Laurel Lea St. Matthews Church on Exmouth, which is used in winter as a temporary emergency shelter. It was scheduled to close this week but will remain open for now.

Shelter operators predict a substantial “bump” in the number experiencing homelessness in Sarnia after the cancellation of some temporary housing programs and a ban on drug users at the city’s largest shelter.

An abrupt decision was made a week ago at River City Vineyard (RCV) on Mitton Street to stop accepting clients who are using drugs, says Pastor George Esser.

RCV has “always tried to be part of the solution” and initially accepted people with addictions into the expanded areas of its 69-bed shelter, said Esser.

River City Vineyard. Glenn Ogilvie

But “many people on the street have been ejected by their families due to theft, attitude, violence and general problems. If their own families cannot have them, how can we?” he asked. “Our experience shows us that we cannot help people who are substance abusing.

“They don’t want help. They just want their next fix, at all costs.”

A $1-million expansion at RCV increased capacity in December from 28 to 69 beds. However, theft, property damage, and altercations have been a growing problem there, especially as the closure approached of the temporary emergency shelter on Exmouth in the former Laurel Lea/St. Matthews Church.

In recent weeks, many Exmouth Street clients moved over to RCV to ensure they had a spot.

Incidents of violence and damage increased, Esser said. “It’s disheartening.

Audrey Kelway and George Esser. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)
Sanctuary shelter manager Audrey Kelway and pastor George Esser. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

“While we have 18 years of experience providing those experiencing homelessness with shelter, we have never seen it this chaotic,” he said in a written statement issued Wednesday.

“It appears that street drugs are leading to more violence and aggression.”

Recently, a 20-year-old female broke the front door window because she felt RCV was “not doing enough for her,” Esser said.

His staff also stopped handing out snack bags and coffee this month because clients threw their garbage on the streets. Even an hourly cleanup by staff wasn’t enough to keep the neighbourhood clean.

Once RCV began testing for drugs April 10, about 30 clients were rejected. This week, only 36 men and two women remain housed at RCV.

Meanwhile, over at the former Laurel Lea/St. Matthews church, the emergency shelter had emptied out in preparation for closure April 15 and then filled  back up once RCV changed its policies. There are about 20 people sleeping there every night now, according to Myles Vanni of the Inn of the Good Shepherd. The Inn is collaborating with Lambton County to operate the temporary shelter that is meant for winter use only.

“We’re extending it but it’s now supposed to close April 29,” Vanni said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

At the same time, funding has dried up for a program operated by the Inn that housed people in motels along London Line. About 15 people were told they had to leave recently, said Vanni.

Myles Vanni. (Cathy Dobson photo)

“Some moved to shelters, others didn’t,” he said.

The concept of housing people in motels started during the pandemic and lasted about two years. It successfully helped some people transition to permanent housing, Vanni said. And there are still a few families sheltered in the motels. But it’s an expensive program and the motels sustained a lot of damage in some cases.

“There were times it became a bit of a wild west out there,” said Vanni. “Drug dealers are plying the Golden Mile and our clients were the victims.”

At times, the repair bills were significant, he said.

The former Chipican Motel on Christina Street was also used for “overflow” until last winter when a new owner evicted social assistance clients. That’s left even fewer options, Vanni said.

“We are working with Lambton County to identify hotels not on the Golden Mile that may be used,” he said. “And we will be very careful to screen clients.”

In recent months, Lambton County’s homelessness prevention program has reported about 15 people sleeping outside every single night. Another 15 “very frequently” sleep rough and another 30 sleep outside intermittently, according to the county’s Ian Hanney, supervisor for homeless prevention.

Ian Hanney

But that number will likely soon balloon to as many as 80 outside every night, predicts Vanni.

Numbers are trending upward, agreed Hanney. “They always do in warmer weather.”

But the closure of beds and the new policies at RCV are bound to push them higher than normal, Esser predicted.

He said Lambton County’s GM of social services Valerie Colasanti and her staff asked to meet with him last week to try to find some solutions.

“She asked if we could stay open 18 hours a day, instead of the nine we’re open now,” Esser said. “Then she asked if we could feed them dinner and breakfast and offered to pay $15.37 per person per day and maybe provide one staff member.”

RCV operates with donations only and does not currently receive any government funding. 

“I’m open to more discussions with the county,” Esser said. “I realize we want to get these people off the street.”   

“All of this is happening when the city is talking about wrecking their tents and evicting people from Rainbow Park,” he added. “That’s going to make a lot more angry people.”

Attempts to reach Valerie Colasanti for comment were not successful.





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