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STORIES FROM THE STREET: Part 5 - Compassion and care for the homeless

The Journal’s Cathy Dobson and photographer Glenn Ogilvie talked to some of Sarnia’s homeless population over the course of several months in order to tell their stories.
A Sarnia resident found refuge under a, awning in downtown Sarnia .
A Sarnia resident finds refuge under an awning in the city’s downtown. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

The Journal’s Cathy Dobson and photographer Glenn Ogilvie talked to some of Sarnia’s homeless population over the course of several months in order to tell their stories. In part five of this series, concluding today, learn about what is being done to help the homeless.


Cathy Dobson

“All these folks are people with talents and personalities and interests. They are somebody’s son or daughter, sister, brother, friend.” - Jennifer Gibbs, Lambton County Community Outreach Nurse.

Even one tent is too many, says Valerie Colasanti, general manager of Lambton County’s social services division.

But unfortunately there’s a growing number of small encampments in Sarnia-Lambton with people making shelters for themselves with whatever they can find.

For the first time, a local database with reliable numbers is available thanks to some federal funding that paid to get a thorough picture of the area’s affordable housing shortage.

It’s called the “By Name” list and confirms that homelessness increased by 400% during the pandemic. That means about 200 – 250 people have no home or are precariously housed in Sarnia-Lambton. Since the shelter system can accommodate a maximum of 100, many people are left without a place to live.

A Sarnia resident gathers his belongings while seeking shelter between a fence and commercial building. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

About 30 have transitional housing, which is a great stepping stone to learning to live independently, but there’s anywhere from 10 – 50 living rough on the street on any given night, said Colasanti.

Those alarming numbers have prompted a number of new initiatives to help the people living outside, sleeping on benches, in tents or even in holes they’ve dug in the ground to stay warm.

For the first time, Lambton County has an outreach team with staff dedicated to finding the homeless and helping them on the streets.

“The idea is to build trust so they’ll come into our shelter system,” said Colasanti. “No one should be living on the streets.”

This month, the county partnered with the Inn of the Good Shepherd and opened a temporary shelter at the former Laurel Lea-St. Matthews’ Church in Sarnia. Within days of opening, 10 people were sleeping there. That number keeps growing.

It’s meant to be temporary but will remain open for as long as it’s needed, said Colasanti.

Also new this winter is Lambton County’s first community outreach nurse who brings clean syringes, and Narcan to the streets where the homeless live rather than relying on them to find medical support on their own.

Jennifer Gibbs, Lambton County Community Outreach Nurse. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

Jennifer Gibbs has been on the job since November. Her compassion for the people she works with is evident as soon as you meet her.

“All these folks are people with talents and personalities and interests,” she says. “They are somebody’s son or daughter, sister, brother, friend.

“They are people just like the rest of us and I think sometimes when we look at that we can go at it with a bit more kindness and compassion,” said Gibbs.

She is listening to stories from Sarnia’s homeless and building trust as she meets them where they live.

“For some, addiction is part of their story, but everyone’s circumstances are very different,” she said. “Some have substance use and mental health. A lot have trauma in their story and some people just have bad luck.

“The biggest thing we have to remember is that these are human beings who have a story and circumstances that brought them to where they are today, and that shouldn’t predict the type of attention, care and support they receive,” said Gibbs.

Murray Stephenson and his wife Gwen run a year-old drop-in centre called “nightlight” for marginalized persons. It’s on Christina Street, just a few blocks from city hall.

Murray Stephenson, executive director, of Nightlight drop in centre. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

The main goal at nightlight is to offer friendship. Being homeless or precariously housed can be extremely isolating, says Stephenson.

“The heart of it is caring, listening, valuing people and creating a community so there’s peer support,” he said. Nightlight is Christian-based and supported by several local churches.

Stephenson said part of the mission is to develop a group of “middle-class” volunteers, something that’s been easy to do. “They may feel a little uncomfortable at first but the idea is to create a place that encourages accepting people as they are.

“We want our guests to be embraced, not just tolerated.”

A man walks with his belongings down Mitton Street. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

One of the most visible new outreach programs in Sarnia was started by the Salvation Army last year. It involves a truck that delivers hot meals twice a week to areas of the city where the need is greatest. Seventy to 100 meals are distributed every time. There’s often more people than food.

The long term solution to homelessness is more affordable housing, of course. Unfortunately, the wait list to get into Lambton County’s social housing grew in the last year, with more people waiting longer, said Colasanti.

It now takes about 42 months to get a one bedroom apartment and there are 497 people on that wait list. It’s a 36-month wait list for a two bedroom. There are 65 people on that one.

Women escaping violence have always been prioritized for housing but recently the homeless have also been prioritized, said Colasanti.

Currently, there are four social housing projects at various stages that will eventually ease the pressure on the wait list, she said. They include 24 new units called Maxwell Park Place on Maxwell Street expected to be ready for occupancy late this year. A two-unit townhouse should be available on Devine Street this summer. The Aboriginal Housing Corp. is partnering with the province to break ground on a 40-unit building on Confederation Street this spring.

As well, a call for proposals recently went out for a private developer to work with Lambton County on a 20-to- 24-unit complex.

Next week, on Tuesday March 21, Sarnia’s homeless will be the subject of a symposium at Lambton College where local professionals will discuss what more can be done.


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In case you missed it:  Part 1: A bit of warmth in a cold parking lot Part 2: Profiles of Sarnia's homeless Part 3: Profiles of Sarnia's homeless Part 4: Profiles of Sarnia's homeless  

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