Money is helping, but homeless crisis may get worse

The Good Shepherd’s Lodge on Confederation Street. Journal Photo

Troy Shantz

Sarnia’s homeless crisis could worsen in the coming weeks as CERB and other government support programs run out, says Lambton County’s homelessness prevention manager.

“We need to at least be prepared for it. Given the economic trends and what we know is coming it’s a reasonable assumption,” Melissa Fitzpatrick said.

Sarnia’s two homeless shelters are full and have been throughout the pandemic. The overflow – more than 200 adults and children, are put up each night at motels and hotels in Sarnia and Point Edward.

The participants include the Sunbridge Hotel, Capital 3 (formerly the Chipican) Eastcourt Motel, Bluewater Motel, Willis’s Inn, Comfort Inn and Versatile Inn Hotel.

Lambton pays the businesses directly for emergency shelter in a process coordinated by Inn of the Good Shepherd, Fitzpatrick said.

Funding from the federal and provincial government is giving shelter and assistance to the most vulnerable. Another $2.3 million from Ontario last month extended the hotel and motel stay program. The money arrived just in time and the full impact of the pandemic isn’t yet clear, Fitzpatrick said.

And more than $100,000 a month is going to help Ontario Works recipients with rent and utility bills.

Last week, 216 people were sheltered at Good Shepherd’s Lodge, The Haven youth centre, and overflow motels, said executive director Myles Vanni.

Another 20 or so were housed at River City Sanctuary.

“The numbers fluctuate. Earlier this month we were hitting almost 230,” he said.

While the pandemic has complicated things few apartments and rising rents were a problem before COVID-19, Vanni said.

“There’s just nothing out there. The demand for housing has really pushed the prices up. And if you’re able to get into a place, for sure you’re still using the food bank and services of social agencies because you don’t have any money left for food.”

Fitzpatrick said government financial assistance has helped 600 people with housing insecurity through the pandemic, and prevented another 200 from winding up on the street.

Many people that required emergency shelter were already living precariously – crashing on a friend’s couch or staying with relatives, Fitzpatrick said. Those arrangements ended abruptly when the pandemic arrived and physical distancing was recommended.

“It is much more costly to keep individuals in the hospital, jails, or emergency shelters than it is to provide additional financial support for rent,” she said.

“I’m hopeful that some people will be able to go back to the arrangements they had before,” she said. “A lot of the reason they found themselves homeless was because they had been staying with family or a friend.”