Housing initiatives break new ground

Cathy Dobson

Sarnia’s Habitat for Humanity is launching two innovative pilot projects aimed at improving the skills and self-esteem of volunteers who collect government assistance.

“Both programs are a first in the Habitat community,” Mark Rodgers, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Canada, who praised the local Habitat group for its leadership.

One pilot project will see a new home built with volunteer help from Ontario Works clients for a family in financial need.

While some prior initiatives among the 65 Canadian affiliates have involved Ontario Works there’s never been one this comprehensive, said Sarah Reaume, executive director at Habitat in Sarnia-Lambton.

The second pilot project involves the launch of a new Habitat Handyman program, scheduled to start in January.

It will offer low-cost, basic home maintenance and repairs to low-income individuals. Paid staff will be joined by skilled volunteers and Ontario Works volunteers to get the repairs done, said Reaume.

Ontario Works clients will receive an honorarium of as much as $750 for their work with the programs, which will not be deducted from their Ontario Works assistance.

Lambton County endorsed the plan earlier this year and approved one-time funding of $170,000 for the two pilot projects.

About $120,000 will go to a new home build on Devine Street expected to break ground in the spring.

A second build site is located next door to the one where Ontario Works clients will work, making it impossible to discern which volunteers are collecting assistance.

The balance of the county funding will kick start the new handyman program. It’s hoped the service will be self-sustaining after the first year, Reaume said.

“Our office regularly receives calls from homeowners who are struggling to get the resources to maintain their homes,” she said. Being able to make repairs often dictates whether they can remain in their homes.

Rodgers was a special guest at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for the Nov. 24 announcement and congratulated Reaume and her board of directors.

“If we’re going to help more families we’re going to have to become more innovative,” he said, calling the Sarnia-Lambton chapter an example to the rest of Canada.

Lambton County staff will interview all Ontario Works volunteers referred by their caseworkers, said county supervisor Amy Davis. The program will be evaluated based on client feedback and whether they gained valuable experience that wouldn’t be available otherwise.

More county funding could be considered if the pilot projects are successful, Davis said.