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A huge boost for River City homeless shelter expansion

Published on

Tara Jeffrey

A local landlord with a penchant for helping people in need has made a hefty donation to expand a much-needed homeless shelter in central Sarnia.

“I really believe in what they are doing there,” said Richard Lalonde, 72, who is giving $203,000 to the River City Vineyard, where construction to add 40 beds and a designated space for women had stalled.

“Housing is so important; if you don’t have a place to lay your head, your whole existence is just trying to get a place to sleep and enough to eat.”

Lalonde made the donation in memory of his late partner, Laurence Le Capelaine, a former Lambton College dean and professor who died in 2020.

The pair founded Esquire Inv. (Sarnia Ltd.) in 1974, a real-state company that provides affordable housing to vulnerable residents, including single mothers, women in abusive situations, people struggling with mental illness, and those living on social assistance.

“If women, in particular, were being harassed by hurtful partners, I had the ability to put trespass orders on them, and keep them away from the property,” said Lalonde, who is still working as a landlord.

The Sarnia native spent eight years in the Army Reserves — serving in Germany during the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia before switching gears and returning to Lambton College.

“I realized not only do I not want to get shot – but I didn’t want to shoot or kill anybody,” said Lalonde, who followed up with a Masters of Clinical Psychology at Oakland University in Michigan.

His internship at what is now the Mental Health inpatient unit at Bluewater Health helped him decide there was more he could do.

“I realized and felt that I could be a hell of a lot more help to people as a landlord than I could sitting at a desk trying to counsel people,” he said.

“That just made a lot more sense. We’d see battered women in the hospital who got sent right back to the sh**hole they came from, basically. So I advertised specifically for single mothers, to help them, and people on disability, and so on, for all these years.”

When he learned the River City expansion was stalled by a lack of funds, Lalonde took stocks he’d put aside and called the shelter.

“I answered the phone and thought — could this be true?’” said Audrey Kelway, operations team leader at the Mitton Street facility.

“We were all just blown away because we’ve been wondering — how are we going to do this? Because we rely on community support.”

While the building still also needs roof repairs, Kelway said the donation will likely help finish the renovations to accommodate 40 additional beds, and security services to house the community’s most vulnerable.

River City takes in much of Sarnia’s ‘harder to house’ population — some of whom struggle with addiction and mental health and have nowhere else to go.

“I’ve had a number of tenants with mental health issues — you couldn’t rent to them because they caused all kinds of problems for others. But [River City] has housing for these people,” said Lalonde.

“They understand those needs, and are supporting that.”

Currently, the shelter has room for 25 men and is consistently full. With the looming closure of a temporary county-led shelter at Central United Church later this month, Kelway expects demand to increase.

“We want to be up and running as soon as we can get it done,” she said. “We’re definitely getting closer… we’ve been blessed. The community is incredible to us.”



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