The Journal’s Cathy Dobson and photographer Glenn Ogilvie talked to some of Sarnia’s homeless population over the course of several months in order to tell their stories. In this five-part series appearing each day this week, learn about who the homeless are and what they experience.
“I’ve seen some good people, some decent folk come through here, but just because it’s the Chipican they get classified as garbage or whatever.”
– Ian Tomlinson. Age 51. Living at the Chipican on long term disability.
Ironically, it was when Ian Tomlinson stopped abusing drugs that he became homeless.
For decades, he had a serious drug problem, using large amounts of opioids daily. They helped with his mental illness and made it possible for him to hold down a job and live a relatively normal life, despite the drugs.
About four years ago, he decided he had enough. “I don’t like using the word clean because it suggests I was dirty somehow, but I stopped cold turkey. And my life just took a turn and I ended up homeless living in a bush.”
He lost his job as a security guard at Kettle and Stony Point. Life unravelled.
“I didn’t know how to live on the straight and narrow. I knew how to function in that different lifestyle but when I switched, it fell apart,” he explained, taking long satisfying drags on a cigarette.
Tomlinson moved to Sarnia and began couch surfing at friends’.
When his friends ran out, he wound up in the bush, living under a tarp. It was rough, he said. And it got rougher when cooler weather approached.
“I knew winter was coming, it was cold, and wet and the bugs… Living under a tarp was uncomfortable. I remember thinking I just want a bed, and I want a roof, and I’m tired. I’m shivering.”
He called a relative connected to local social services and was given a room at the Chipican Motel at the corner of Michigan and Christina streets in Sarnia’s north end.
The Chipican was once a sought-after vacation spot but has been used as an emergency shelter for several years. Several who stay there long term said their Ontario Works or long term disability cheques cover the cost to stay there.
Now Tomlinson has lived there for two years, longer than anyone else occupying the rundown motel.
As he tells his story standing in the Chipican’s parking lot, he’s relaxed and welcomes the conversation. He watches out of the corner of his eye as another resident walks by, hollering incoherently into a cell phone.
When Tomlinson was born, his surname was George.
“My mother is from Kettle Point. My father is from Walpole. I was born in Wallaceburg and I was adopted by a non-native family when I was three years old,” he said.
He was part of the Sixties Scoop, a term that describes a mass removal of indigenous children from their mothers to place them in the child welfare system without family or band consent.
“I ended up with a family in B.C. and they changed my name to theirs. Then the adoption fell apart, my life fell apart and I ended up on the streets for years.”
He began smoking cigarettes when he was seven and tried marijuana when he was eight.
“I’ve done every drug in the book,” he said. “I’ve sold every drug in the book, abused them all…done them all.”
At the Chipican, he saw a lot of drug abuse when he first got there in 2020.
“It was a little rougher then. A lot of opioid ODs because of fentanyl. There was a time when the parking lot was full of lights every night.
“I’ve Narcanned a few on my own, but it’s a different atmosphere now. It’s cleaned up a lot since then,” he said.
“It’s not so bad now. They are more careful. They are trying to change the clientele. I enjoy it here. It’s too bad it’s up for sale.”
The Chipican Motel property went on the market in February for $2.79 million.
“If I had the money, I’d buy it,” said Tomlinson wistfully. “This place has so much potential. If I bought it, I’d turn it into a women’s interval home and women and children would be safe here.
“I’ve always been very protective of women. Part of this life is seeing a lot of young women and children that are in that spot, single moms, and I sort of have a soft spot for them.
“The Chipican is its own breed,” Tomlinson continued. “When I first moved here, I couldn’t even get pizza delivered.”
Asked if he has any final thoughts about his lifestyle, he said, “Never judge a book by its cover. You know, it’s tough. If I try to buy something on Facebook or online, as soon as they find out where I live, they just walk away.
“I’m a nice guy,” he laughed. “I just want to buy a Nintendo to have something to do.”
NEXT: Part 3 of Stories from the Street. Profiles of Sarnia’s homeless.
PREVIOUS: Part 1 of Stories from the Street