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Homelessness at new highs this year

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Troy Shantz

As many as 155 local residents are homeless and relying on Lambton County for support as winter approaches and temperatures fall toward the freezing mark, says the general manager of social services.

“A lot of individuals who were precariously housed are now in our system and I think they’re starting to reach out for those services,” said Valerie Colasanti.

Good Shepherd Lodge is 27-bed facility on Confederation Street. But because of pandemic physical distancing rules it’s running at half capacity.

River City Sanctuary on Mitton Street has capacity for 24 nightly and is full.

Many others are sheltered in rooms at local motels, hotels and an additional county-owned facility.

When COVID-19 forced an economic lockdown this spring, Ontario provided Lambton with $2.8 million. That was in addition to the $3 million it normally receives for homelessness.

And County officials have requested another $1.2 million to get through the coming winter, Colasanti said.

“When we got the $2.8 million… I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’ But we had no idea (the pandemic) would go on this long and our numbers would grow.”

The funding was used to safely house people in motel rooms and overflow facilities, as well as providing food, sanitation and PPE for clients and staff.

Some funding is now also helping struggling families pay rent and utilities and keep them from becoming homeless, she said.

The number of residents with nowhere to live reached as high as 200 this summer, Colasanti said.

During the economic lockdown, staff at River City Sanctuary turned away as many as 10 people nightly.

Many homeless bunk with friends, drifting from couch to couch. But when stores and jobs shut down many fell behind on rent, Colasanti said.

“You can manage for a few months with a lower income but after that you can’t always pay your bills.”

The problem is compounded by a local housing shortage.

“We don’t have a lot of apartments available in Sarnia, or even in the county,” she said.

Finding a bachelor apartment in Sarnia for less than $900 a month is hard, said River City housing manager Owen Vroom.

Ironically, he blames laws that make it difficult for landlords to evict problem tenants. When landlords can’t pay their bills many sell their rental properties, further diminishing an already limited housing stock, he said.

“It’s an unfair market for homeowners, so homeowners are pulling out. They’re selling their houses and they’re walking away.”

At River City Sanctuary, the swimming pool area of the former YMCA building has been filled in for an expansion. Another 40 beds are planned, with heated floors, HVAC improvements and a women’s area, something not currently provided.

Lambton County is also planning an 18-to-25 unit housing project, with social services provided onsite, Colasanti said. The county has asked for matching provincial funds and it could go to tender next year, she said.

Lambton has collaborated with River City since the pandemic arrived, the first time the donation-funded shelter has worked with the county, Vroom said.

Addictions counsellors and social workers visit the Mitton Street facility twice weekly to meet clients, and the county has provided direction and personal protective equipment.

Lambton is also working closely with Rebound, Lambton Elderly Outreach, Lambton Public Health and Bluewater Health, Colasanti added.

“It’s really been amazing to see how everyone has come together and really worked with this population.”

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