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River City Vineyard shelter adopts drug-free policy

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Pastor says new approach is helping homeless stay clean

Cathy Dobson

A new drug-free policy at River City Vineyard church requires everyone staying at  the 28-bed shelter to pass a urine test, says pastor George Esser.

Not everybody who asks to stay the night is tested, he said. But if there’s any sign of drug or alcohol use, staff insist on testing for 14 different drugs including crystal meth and cocaine.

George Esser. ((Glenn Ogilvie photo)

“Each test costs about $8 and we’ve already spent more than $1,000 on testing,” he said about the policy that started about one month ago.

Just prior to cracking down on drug use in the Mitton Street shelter, Esser said he became more “hands on.”

“I began meeting every morning with some of the guys in trouble and I figured out that a lot of them wanted to stay drug-free,” he said. “The problem was that they were being triggered by drug users in the shelter, so we needed to make a change.”

Esser said his goal in operating the shelter for 17 years has always been to help people get “unstuck.”

“I felt giving them food and shelter, they’d start getting better.  It’s not true,” he said. Theft of personal items was rampant in the all-male shelter this summer, and people who were newly detoxed at the hospital found too many temptations.

“They’d start using again and going downhill,” said Esser. “By allowing drugs, it was making it harder for them to live that life.

“We want to provide a sanctuary in a safe place.”

River City Vineyard. (Cathy Dobson photo)

There’s generally a line-up of men outside River City Vineyard every evening, all hoping for a bed.  But when the new policy began, many stayed away. About half the 28 beds were empty for weeks. 

However, Esser said that number slowly crept back up and now only about three or four beds are empty every night.

The rest are filled with people experiencing homelessness who have passed a drug test or clearly don’t need one, he said.

“They know we’ll do random testing too,” Esser added. 

The result is that Sarnia has a new place for people coming out of detox to stay while they wait to get into a rehabilitation facility.

“The person running the detox centre said they are happy,” said Esser. “And we’re seeing more people drug free for 60, 90, 120 days and more.

“There’s just a better chance that they won’t use drugs.”

At least one shelter resident agrees.

“I think it’s excellent. George is doing a very good thing,” said Lou Leger, 67, while enjoying a coffee outside the front door.

Leger said he’s been staying at River City Vineyard’s shelter for about two weeks, trying to come up with a plan to rent his own place.

“A lot of guys are going through withdrawal here and don’t know how to cope with that,” he said.  “I have lived in an atmosphere where it wasn’t drug free and it was a nightmare.”

Leger said he is an alcoholic but hasn’t had a drink for “some time.”

“I met George here on my first day and I looked him in the eye and said I’m trying to break my double-double habit,” he said, smiling and holding up his coffee.

“There’s been a major shakeup here this summer and a lot of changes made,” said Leger. “That’s a good thing when you have 20 to 22 men living in a confined space with new people coming in.”

Meanwhile, a $1-million expansion and renovation is not complete at River City, despite intentions to have the building finished last spring.

Esser said he hopes fire and building inspections will be done soon and a grand opening can be held Nov. 4.

When the expanded shelter opens, 16 women will have access to beds on the main floor where an indoor pool used to be when the building was the local YMCA. Another 25 new beds will open for men in separate quarters on the main floor. The original 28 men’s beds will still be available in the basement. 

Overall, the shelter is expanding from 28 beds to 69 beds.

The women’s area will be drug-free with no limit on the length of stays. The men’s new beds will not enforce drug testing but the men will have to leave the shelter every morning.

The expansion, which has been supported by several very large community donations and a lot of fundraising, started three years ago.

“It’s taking longer than expected because of all the protocols we have to meet,” said Esser. “It’s just stuff like the windows and the brickwork.

“But we’re close.”

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