River City adds beds to keep Sarnians off the streets

River City Sanctuary

Troy Shantz

Unusually harsh winter conditions are increasing demand at River City Sanctuary, one of the city’s busiest homeless shelters.

“We’re getting more people coming out of the woodwork because it’s cold,” said Owen Vroom with the Sanctuary. “The holiday season is over, so a lot of the couch surfers are getting the boot.”

River City generally fills 13 to 20 beds a night but has added 12 more.

In addition to beds, the Mitton Street shelter also provides warm drinks, soup and a warming area to provide a reprieve from the streets.

There’s also a free clothing store and food bank, as well as hot meals available toward the end of each month.

So far, River City is managing well due to food donations from several local businesses and charitable groups. But donations of volunteer time and canned goods, socks and towels are always in demand, Vroom said.

“We’re going to be engaging in more of a drive in the new year, concentrating a bit more on our food bank,” he said.

The shelter’s transitional housing program is also in need of more support.

River City helps emergency shelter residents find stability by acting as a guarantor for longer term housing. Vroom said River City will assist with first and last months’ rent, ensure rent is paid on time and that properties are maintained and respected.

Vroom fears that as Sarnia begins to see a renaissance in the valley with fresh innovation and investment, rising housing prices will likely follow. That could create a shortage of transitional housing options, he said.

“We are getting a lot of people… from outside of this area recognizing that this is a bargain for real estate, and buying up south end properties and renovating,” said shelter volunteer Tom Hillis.

Typically River City workers try to find apartments for around $400 per month, but landlords for those same units are asking $650 or more this winter.

Vroom said part of the solution could be finding entire houses to place three to four residents rather than using single apartments.

He said at least one private investor has purchased two houses for River City to rent and there’s potential for a third.

River City’s transitional housing program currently oversees residents in 13 apartments in Sarnia.