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New emergency homeless shelter catches mayor, neighbours off guard

Tara Jeffrey A temporary shelter set to open in Sarnia’s downtown to help address the homeless crisis is drawing the ire of residents who say their neighbourhood is already struggling.
Central United Church. Troy Shantz

Tara Jeffrey

A temporary shelter set to open in Sarnia’s downtown to help address the homeless crisis is drawing the ire of residents who say their neighbourhood is already struggling.

“It was a sucker punch to us,” said Chris Burley, who heads the Heritage District Neighbourhood Watch.

“It kind of seems like they ran the clock out on our neighbourhood so that we couldn’t really do much to oppose it.”

Lambton County said the emergency shelter will have 25 to 30 beds and be open from December to April.

County officials wouldn’t name the location, but Burley said the owner of the property at 220 George St. — the former Central United Church — confirmed a lease had been signed for what the county is calling a ‘temporary congregate care site’ at the historic building.

“We’re already in the midst of a crisis with property crimes, and things that don’t make us feel safe in our own neighbourhood,” said Burley.

He started a Neighbourhood Watch for the London Road, Mitton Street, George and Brock Street area in 2019 in response to petty crime, violence and break-ins. Things haven’t improved through the pandemic, he said.

“We’re definitely not suggesting that everybody who is homeless is a criminal, because the vast majority of people who are homeless are good, desperate people who are just looking for a place to live,” said Burley.

“But the problem we are having is the drug-addicted people who often fall into that homelessness category… and no doubt we’re going to be bringing more of them in.

Valerie Colasanti, Lambton’s general manager of social services, stressed it won’t be a drop-in or ‘Out of the Cold’-type shelter, but rather, an extension of the Good Shepherd’s Lodge homeless shelter in Sarnia. An intake process will be in place, along with staff and security on site, she said.

The pandemic brought a 400% increase in the number of individuals presenting as homeless in Lambton, which has resulted in many being housed in overflow beds at local motels.

“The cost of housing people in a motel is astronomical,” Colasanti told county council this week, noting emergency provincial funding was for the period ending March 31, 2022.

“We will be out of funds by the end of this year,” she said.

If the province doesn’t come through with additional money the county will be asked to budget for the anticipated $1.5 million needed to provide services in 2022, she said.

Lambton currently has 155 individuals within its homeless system, down from a pandemic peak of 260.

“Still huge numbers,” she said. “But we really think we can reduce them if we can move individuals from the motels into this setting.”

The new site will allow people to connect with community supports and work with agencies like the Canadian Mental Health Association and Ontario Works, filling out housing applications and other assistance, Colasanti said.

A homelessness enumeration conducted by the county in June found more than 230 individuals and families experiencing homelessness at that time. Among respondents, 66% identified as having a mental health issue, 61% identified as male, and 87% had stayed in a homeless shelter within the last 24 months.

“The main reasons for homelessness is lack of affordable housing,” said Colasanti. “And that is not unique to Lambton.

“What I did find surprising was the number of people who had experienced homelessness on several occasions. We’re starting to see an increase in people with chronic and episodic homelessness, so again, that’s why there’s such a need for these support programs.”

A lack of mental health and addiction support is another factor, she told council.

“We have many support services within the county but we don’t have enough to deal with mental health and addictions. And this isn’t a new issue.”

County councillors agreed to gather public input through an online survey about the county’s housing and homelessness efforts.

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley expressed concern that he and city councillors hadn’t been informed or consulted on the new shelter site.

“I feel so detached from this process,” he said. “It’s not a secret and it should be out there so we’re not looking like there’s some effort to not let the community know what’s happening.”

Longtime resident Lorraine Butler said she’s disappointed the neighbours weren’t informed of the plan.

“The whole thing is very disturbing to me. I wish there would have been an opportunity to hear more about it so we could separate fact from fiction, and ask questions,” said the 92-year-old.

“I do feel bad about what I’m seeing downtown, but have seen no tangible solution,” she added. “The only thing that’s going to help in the end is to deal with the drug problem here, but I don’t see that happening.”

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