New housing proposed for at-risk youth

The former ABC Child Care Centre on London Road. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

Tammy Vandenheuvel knows what it’s like to be a homeless teenager in Sarnia and wants to help local youth with nowhere to live.

She and husband Gary Vandenheuvel have purchased a former day-care centre at 811 London Rd. and hope to convert it into seven units for up to 10 youth.

The Vandenheuvels, who own a successful towing business, want to provide transitional housing and prepare youth, ages 16 to 24, to live in permanent homes on their own.

“I don’t want to talk about the details but I have personal experience being homeless as a youth,” Vandenheuvel said. “I lived in the Women’s Interval Home until a relative took me in.

“I felt I didn’t belong at the Interval Home. I felt very helpless. There was really nowhere for me to go.”

Vandenheuvel recently spoke to city council and asked for a zoning amendment to allow a transitional housing facility at 811 London Rd.

Council approved.

“I need city council to understand teenage years are risky for anyone. Teenagers make decisions that aren’t always the best. It’s really important the community rallies around this.

“It’s the only way it can work,” said Vandenheuvel, who was a child and youth worker for 32 years. She currently volunteers on The Hub advisory committee at Rebound, an organization that helps at-risk youth.

“Our reports show that every month there are youth looking for housing,” she said. “It’s an invisible problem, often with lots of couch surfing so we don’t see these kids on the street.”

She is aware young people were found squatting in the vacant Sarnia General Hospital building, and there’s evidence some sleep beneath city underpasses.

“Gary and I have wanted to do something about this for a long time,” Vandenheuvel said. “I drove past (811 London Rd.) so many times and saw it was for sale.

“Then suddenly a light went on.”

The couple purchased the property in August and has spent thousands of dollars to get the zoning amendment and other preliminary work done.

The building dates to the 1920s when it was built as a two-room schoolhouse, then converted in the 1960s for school board administration, then storage. In 1984, it was bought by a private day-care operator.

“It has very good bones and many new upgrades,” said Vandenheuvel.  “I’m excited about it. We think it can be easily renovated.”

Meanwhile, Lambton County has received $1 million in capital funding from the province for new supportive housing. Another $860,000 a year for operations has been approved by Ontario’s Home for Good program.

The county sees a need for transitional housing for youth and called for proposals.  A number have been received, including one from the Vandenheuvels.

The winning applicant for the capital dollars will likely be chosen in January, said Kelly Hall, Lambton’s manager of housing services.

Sarnia has some short-term emergency housing for youth but no transitional, longer-term housing that can prepare them for independent living, Hall said.

The waiting list for social housing is 18 to 20 months, she said. “So they end up in situations that aren’t healthy, living precariously and without permanency.”

The Good Shepherd’s Lodge on Confederation Street has transitional units sometimes used by youth, but it’s not ideal because there are mostly adults in that facility and the two demographic should be separate, said Myles Vanni, executive director.

“There’s just not a lot of housing for youth in Sarnia,” he said. “A lot of landlords think it’s too big of a risk to rent to a young person because homeless youth have often had a rough go of it.

“There may be mental health or addiction challenges too.”

Vanni said he hopes any new transitional youth housing provides basic life skills and on-site supervision because “they often come from homes where they weren’t taught to grocery-shop, to budget or to get along with others.

“It has to be a lot more than a roof over their head.”