One year into pandemic, homelessness a full-blown crisis

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

Troy Shantz & George Mathewson

Sarnia-Lambton has reached an “unprecedented emergency” with all shelters full and more than 200 homeless men, women and children being put up nightly at hotels and motels.

“We’ve had a drastic increase in the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness,” said Ian Hanney, Lambton’s supervisor of homelessness prevention and social planning.

“We’ve had a steep and rapid incline. We’ve had all hands on deck at the county, internally and with our community partners, to address what’s been an unprecedented emergency.”

A shortage of housing was already a problem when COVID-19 arrived one year ago. The pandemic has increased the number of people without a roof, and it has limited homeless shelters by forcing them to reduce bed numbers to meet safety protocols.

Good Shepherd’s Lodge currently has 215 people in its care — 17 at the Confederation Street shelter and the rest staying at overflow motels.

The facility is also struggling with a COVID-19 outbreak. Six residents and three staff had tested positive as of Friday.

“Working with the population is challenging as mental health and addictions issues make it very difficult to help the clients understand the need for isolation, masking and sanitizing,” the Lodge said in a community update.

Many people with tenuous employment have lost jobs and hourly work. And the pandemic has strained relationships and forced many who were “couch-surfing” with friends into the street, Hanney noted.

As a result, hundreds of people are now being put up each night at hotels and motels on the Golden Mile, Christina Street and Venetian Boulevard. The delivery of emergency shelter and meals is helped by $4.5 million received from Ontario’s Social Services Relief Fund last year.

Diversion support for people with housing insecurity has helped 600 individuals since the pandemic began, said Melissa Fitzpatrick, Lambton’s Homelessness Prevention and Children’s Services manager.

Hanney said housing people at motels is “the last and worst” option. “Entering the emergency system can perpetuate a cycle of homelessness,” he said.

Lambton also runs a transitional housing program. At Good Shepherd’s Lodge, about 20 residents in a different space are learning life skills such as cooking, cleaning and bill paying with the goal of becoming self-sufficient.

The county, Inn of the Good Shepherd and CMHA have also pooled resources to help some people find permanent housing, Hanney said.

With rising rents and limited apartment stock, finding affordable housing is a growing problem. Last year, nearly 600 individuals and families were on a waiting list for affordable housing units in Sarnia-Lambton.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Sarnia is $1,157 a month, according to RentBoard.ca.

“Imagine somebody on (Ontario Works), Hanney said. “If it’s a single adult … their shelter allowance is $390.”