Sign up for our free weekday bulletin.

An experiment with living rough

Published on

Local man raising money for vulnerable population

Cathy Dobson

The executive director of a downtown Sarnia drop-in centre plans to live on the streets for a week this month to raise funds and learn more about what it means to be homeless.

Murray Stephenson and his wife Gwen manage Nightlight Sarnia, a drop-in centre on Christina Street that has offered community and support for vulnerable people since Feb. 2022.

Stephenson calls his fundraiser “Walking a Week in the Shoes of the Homeless” for Nightlight Sarnia. He plans to live rough Oct. 23 – 30 with nothing more than a backpack, a tarp, his cell phone and a tent.

“I want to learn more about what these people are going through,” he said. “There’s a big difference between hearing the stories and experiencing them first hand.”

Stephenson, 67, is a retired addiction counsellor. In 2020, he chose to spend five nights living at the River City Vineyard men’s shelter to improve his understanding.

“It was a powerful experience,” he said. “It moved me to tears to experience the vast difference between the middle class and the street.

“Some people may think it’s a little crazy to try living rough but I think that walking a mile in the shoes of the homeless will help me bring more compassion to the job.”

He also hopes to raise awareness about Nightlight’s work and attract donations for the drop-in centre.

Nightlight is committed to providing a warm, supportive place for the city’s most vulnerable but is struggling financially, Stephenson said.

“Our goal is to be sustainable long term. We don’t feel we’re in jeopardy, but there’s been a steady increase in homelessness and we do need more financial support.”

In September, Stephenson and his wife volunteered to be laid off from their 20-hours-a- week management position at Nightlight and have been working without pay since.

They train and co-ordinate about 40 volunteers – many from local churches – and keep the doors open two days a week with about $2,500 a month. The goal is to generate $5,000 monthly, said Stephenson.

Approximately 40 people regularly drop in to Nightlight every Tuesday and Thursday. A church service is also held each Sunday. The centre was open Mondays but that’s been curtailed due to budget constraints.

“When we started, there may have been one to three homeless in to see us in one night,” said Stephenson. “Now we are easily seeing 10 – 12 who are homeless and there are new faces all the time.

“People come in to Nightlight all the time with nothing but the clothes on their back.”

Stephenson said the pandemic has created a “perfect storm” of more addictions, more homelessness and more mental health, while making fundraising for charitable organizations more difficult.

Donations to Walking a Week in the Shoes of the Homeless can be mailed to Nightlight at 181 Christina St. North, Sarnia, Ont. N7T 5T8. More information and online donation options are available at https://nightlightcanada.com/sarnia/.

More like this