Grassroots effort trying to help the homeless now, and in future

Stuffing backpacks for the homeless, from left: Ben Matlovich, Laurie Frayne, Lisa Matlovich and Barb Rogers. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

A group of local residents who know the anguish of having a loved one surviving on the streets says more has to be done.

So many initiatives that address mental health, addiction and housing have been held up by COVID-19, they say.

“Things are really stalled and we asked ourselves, ‘What is being done for these poor souls while they wait?’” says Laurie Frayne, cofounder of a project called Hearts and Services for All.

Frayne has a 29-year-old son struggling with mental health and homelessness. Sarnia is short on shelter beds, low-income housing and mental health supports, she said.

“It’s so sad. These are human beings no matter what their issues. Every one of them is someone’s child, even though it’s not always possible for them to live with family.”

Frayne is working with Barb Rogers, Lisa Matlovich and about 10 others who have met with local politicians to seek solutions to the housing shortage.

Converting shipping containers into housing for the homeless is one possibility, they say.

A safe injection site to save lives and stop people from stealing to finance their addiction would also help, said Rogers, whose son is a long-time drug user.

“We treat addicts as criminals and we have to find other ways to help them so they don’t have to resort to stealing,” she said.

“My son is a hard-core addict. He’s on methadone but it doesn’t stop him from taking other drugs.

“It’s absolutely gut wrenching for the family.”

Matlovich and her teenage son Ben joined the group after a family member overdosed and died.

“There are so many stereotypes about addicts,” said Matlovich.  “I really believe we have to change perceptions.

“If you look at someone who is homeless or addicted as ‘less than’ then that is what they’re going to be.”

Affordable housing, better counselling and other supports are the goal of Hearts and Services for All.

But first, the group is focused on immediate needs as winter sets in. They put out a call for donations to stuff 50 backpacks with basic supplies and had an impressive response.

Corporations and individual donors pitched in mitts, hats, flashlights, toiletries, foil blankets, snacks, gift cards and more.

“It just snowballed,” said Rogers. “Now we can let the homeless know we love and care about them.”

Some of the backpacks will be distributed Christmas Eve at the River City Sanctuary on Mitton Street. Others will be handed out downtown. The committee also hopes to form a liaison with the Sarnia Jail to help newly released inmates.

“There’s so much homelessness in Sarnia and we worry about what will happen when COVID-19 is over and there’s no more money to keep them at the motels, like they’re doing right now,” said Frayne.

Sarnia’s shelters are full and provincial grants are helping temporarily house hundreds of people at local motels while the pandemic rages and couch surfing is not an option.

Frayne predicts homeless men and women will be far more visible on local streets once that funding runs out.

To find out more about Hearts and Services for All, visit their Facebook page.