Lambton rejects funding request for shelter expansion as homeless crisis grows

George Esser, lead pastor at River City Vineyard, stands amid the construction of a new women’s wing at the Mitton Street shelter. Tara Jeffrey

Tara Jeffrey

Officials at River City Vineyard say they’re disappointed Lambton County has opted to open a new temporary homeless facility even as they struggle to complete a long-planned shelter expansion.

“We would have loved to have opened by now,” said Renee Card, worship pastor at the Sarnia church and homeless shelter, where a plan to add more beds has all but stalled in the midst of a crippling homelessness crisis.

“COVID has obviously driven up the cost of materials, and labour has been hard to find. We can only move forward as we have the finances to do so,” she said.

Lambton County has opened a new temporary shelter at the former Central United Church building, to run from December to April. With all shelters full and a 400% increase in individuals presenting as homeless, local motels have been used to house the overflow.

“[We] did approach the county to inquire if a portion of the $2.75 million dollar homelessness prevention grant that the county received could be awarded to River City to finish the shelter expansion,” Card said.

“But we were informed that the funding was to go towards building long-term housing opportunities and not short-term shelter solutions.”

While the new temporary shelter is welcome news for Sarnia’s homeless, “it is disappointing that the County of Lambton was not willing to work together with River City Vineyard to utilize the resources that would have best benefitted both parties,” she said.

The River City facility on Mitton Street has room for 25 men and is consistently full. The planned expansion will add 40 additional beds, including a section for women.

“If (Lambton) would have given us, like, $200,000 — which would be probably less than what they’re going to spend over there — then at least they’d have something to show for it afterwards,” said Lead Pastor George Esser.

“If we had the money, we could be open by March.”

Valerie Colasanti, Lambton’s general manager of social services, said the county’s 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan is based on a ‘housing-first model.’

“Opening additional shelter beds does not support the plans and we do not have any capital funds for that purpose,” she said. “Funding is not available for the permanent expansion of emergency shelters.”

Colasanti stressed the new shelter at Central United is a short-term solution — aimed at providing intensive support services and moving those individuals to safe, affordable housing — not the permanent beds sought by River City.

Esser wondered what the county will do when April arrives and people are still living on the street.

“There’s lots and lots of homeless,” said Esser, noting River City has 80 people on a bed wait list, half of them women.

River City takes in much of Sarnia’s ‘harder to house’ population — some of whom struggle with addiction and mental health and have nowhere else to go. Some have burned their bridges with landlords.

“There’s lots of people that just can’t be housed,” Esser said.

River City has remained open throughout the pandemic. It offers a free store, shower and snack programs, and emergency food bank. The facility relies heavily on community, private and church donations, in addition to United Way funding.

Last year, $44,000 was raised for the shelter expansion through the Coldest Night of the Year fundraiser. An additional $210,000 is needed to complete the project.

Details for the 2022 fundraising event are available at https://cnoy.org/location/sarniarivercity.

“Throughout this pandemic the community has really stepped up,” said Card. “We’re not just a shelter, we’re also a community centre, and people are becoming more aware of who we are and what we do.”