Homelessness: about 16 people stay nightly at city’s lone shelter

River City Vineyard. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson

Sarnia’s only remaining homeless shelter has been slightly busier since city council forced River City Vineyard Church to close its shelter.

But it’s unclear where most of the men displaced from the Mitton Street church are living.

“I can think of four in the last couple of weeks who have asked for a bed and we’ve had to say no,” said George Esser, church leader at River City, which ran the Harbour Inn Homeless Shelter for eight years before it was shut down.

“These four tell me they don’t know what they’re going to do. There’s a lot of heartache.”

Mitton Street neighbours had complained the shelter disrupted the residential area and contravened zoning bylaws. City council agreed.

The church, which sheltered about 12 men at a time, has appealed a court ruling that upheld council’s decision.

Esser said his church was a haven for men who “don’t feel comfortable” going to the Shepherd’s Lodge operated by the Inn of the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd’s Lodge on Confederation Street is only a few years old and has room for 25 men and women.

Numbers there have risen slightly since June, said executive director Myles Vanni.

“Last year we averaged 15 people a night. A few moved over here when River City closed and now we have 16 or 17 every night,” he said. “There really hasn’t been much of an impact.”

Sarnia’s homelessness problem isn’t as visible as it is in a larger city, Vanni said.

“Homelessness here isn’t about people sleeping on a park bench. It’s more likely to be moving from one friend’s couch to another. And when the friends run out, they come to us.”

Esser didn’t agree entirely.

“In the summertime, I knew people were sleeping in the park or abandoned buildings,” he said.

“Honestly, it’s really hard to think about where they are right now. I know of four personally, but there are many others.

“We spent a lot of time, effort and money to help them and then a few people said they didn’t want us to do that.”

Esser maintains there’s a segment of the homeless population that doesn’t comply with the rules at the Shepherds Lodge. But Vanni said no one is turned away unless they’ve been violent or had illegal drugs.

The legal battle has cost River City Vineyard Church about $27,000 so far, while the city’s legal bills have climbed to more than $163,000.