Several factors fuelling rising rate of homelessness in city

Journal graphic, Tyler Viscount

Tara Jeffrey

A Sarnia housing crisis that’s been brewing for months is the result of a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, says Inn of the Good Shepherd director Myles Vanni.

“A few things are happening, and some of them are really good success stories. But the negative, unintended consequence is that it’s taking housing away,” said Vanni, who brought his concerns to the Community Homelessness Initiatives Network (CHIN), a network of agencies that works on housing challenges and solutions.

One success story limited housing units is higher enrolment at Lambton College, especially among international students.

“They’ve done a tremendous job bringing in students from across the country, and around the world, and they all need housing, so that’s drawn a lot of the availability away,” said Vanni, noting a spike in rent prices.

“But even students are struggling to find a place. We know there are cases where there’s four, six, or eight students in an apartment, because they can’t get the housing themselves.”

Vanni also pointed to the $2.2-billion expansion getting under way at Nova Chemicals.

“Although they haven’t started building yet it’s created a market pressure where we’ve got speculators buying units, evicting people, renovating, in anticipation of the labour force coming in to work, who will be paid a lot, so those rents are going up.”

Management companies that are consolidating and changing the requirements for apartment units are another pressure.

“You used to have to provide a post-dated cheque and now a lot of them require a certified cheque until they review your application,” Vanni said.

“If you don’t get the apartment they return it to you, which can sometimes take a few weeks, and a lot of folks don’t have that money to be able to tie up in a certified cheque. It automatically eliminates them from being able to apply for an apartment.

“The rules have become very restrictive, and in the end, they become discriminatory against lower income people.”

The housing scarcity has produced a surge of homelessness that’s unprecedented in Sarnia.

“We went from a year ago having 15 to 16 people a night at the shelter,” he said of the Good Shepherd’s Lodge homeless shelter, “to now we’re at capacity with 25 every night.”

Many who stay at the shelter have been there months, he noted. Previously they would stay a few weeks before finding a new place to get settled.

“There’s just no place for them to move now,” Vanni said.

An impromptu task force was created earlier this month after Bluewater Health officials noticed an influx of homeless men and women seeking shelter at the hospital.

“Folks are camping out in the emergency department, or in somebody’s shed, or in the doorway at the mall,” he said, noting agency representatives are brainstorming possible solutions.

He pointed to programs like ‘In out of the cold’ that provide temporary shelter set up in places like church halls, to be used as secondary overflow locations for the winter months.

But funding is key.

“It can’t all be done by volunteers because some of these folks have complex needs, like mental health or addiction,” he said.

“My other concern is, this is just a stop gap; it’s revealing a symptom, but the real question is, how do we get more permanent housing for people?”

“That’s our longer term challenge.”