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Taking aim at homelessness: Police, mental health, housing officials brainstorm at summit

Cathy Dobson Valerie Colasanti The challenges of local homelessness are daunting but Sarnia-Lambton has never had as many resources to tackle the issue, say local officials.
Ian Hanney, Lambton County’s supervisor for homelessness prevention, said 244 individuals are currently on a real-time homeless list in Sarnia-Lambton. Hanney spoke to 170 professionals gathered to tackle the problem […]

Cathy Dobson

Valerie Colasanti

The challenges of local homelessness are daunting but Sarnia-Lambton has never had as many resources to tackle the issue, say local officials.

Much more is needed in way of subsidized housing and mental health funding, however, the number of community support workers directly helping to find safe housing for local homeless has increased from two to 10 since the start of the pandemic, says Valerie Colasanti, general manager of Lambton County’s social services division.

The county has also hired two outreach workers to assist the dozen or so people sleeping outside every night.

“They know where individuals (sleeping rough) are and they go out and try to move them into shelter,” she said.

While Sarnia-Lambton waits for construction of more subsidized housing, the new community support workers help people who are precariously housed or homeless to improve their situation.

“They do intensive case management,” Colasanti said. That may mean finding them help with mental health or addiction issues, helping them find a job, assisting with rent payments and helping them learn life skills like paying the bills on time.

Colasanti was one of 170 local professionals attending a summit originally suggested by Mayor Mike Bradley to find solutions to Sarnia-Lambton’s burgeoning homeless problem.

Police, paramedics, social workers, politicians and bureaucrats gathered at Lambton College Tuesday to talk about the current numbers living without safe, affordable housing. They discussed the underlying reasons for homelessness and what to do about it.

Warden Kevin Marriott

“The numbers were a shock when we first heard them,” said Lambton Warden Kevin Marriott.

“That’s why we’re constantly asking for provincial housing support, for short-term funding for the motels (to shelter the homeless) and other funding to deal with mental health and homelessness.”

Local demand for subsidized housing units has increased by 225% since 2014 and the average wait time for them has jumped by 300%, said Ian Hanney, supervisor of homelessness prevention for Lambton County.

The post-pandemic rental market is very challenging with only a 2.4% vacancy rate, he said. Landlords are inflating rents and can be much more selective – only approving tenants with higher incomes, Hanney said.

At the same time, there is less turnover in subsidized housing because people who get a unit can’t find other affordable housing to move into, so they stay put.

Studies show that over the next decade, an additional 2,490 affordable rental units are needed in Lambton County, Hanney said.

Ian Hanney

Several speakers talked about the root causes of homelessness and said people with mental illness are disproportionately affected.

“It’s striking to me…that one in five that come in for inpatient mental health (care at Bluewater Health) have no fixed address,” said Rhonny Doxtator, acting CEO at the local Canadian Mental Health Association branch.

“That’s shocking. Twenty percent in withdrawal management have no fixed address,” she said.

Marriott said the province has stepped up in recent years with more funding for affordable housing but the federal government has not.

“We need all three partners – municipal, provincial and federal - to come through with funding for another 24 affordable units, like the ones being built on Maxwell Place,” Marriott said.

“It’s too heavy a load for the provincial and local governments to carry.”

The summit, called Stronger Together: Collaborating for a Vibrant Community, was a unique event to bring together professionals who deal with housing, homelessness and addictions.

“Today was the start of many productive conversations and collaborative initiatives that will need to be held moving forward to create…solutions,” said Colasanti.

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