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’m poor. I’ve got no family; I’ve got no school; I’ve got no education and I’m homeless, so I broke into cars, and stole stuff.” – Doug Waybrant. Age 80. Reflecting on life when he was on the streets before he got a basement apartment.
Doug Waybrant has a great sense of humour.
“If you want my photo, they’ve got a good one of me down at the police station,” he jokes.
He’s stopping in at a popular drop-in centre for marginalized people in Sarnia, and brings his bicycle inside to make sure it doesn’t get stolen.
Waybrant has had a tough life and doesn’t sugar coat it.
He grew up in Bright’s Grove in a family of 11. When his father drank, he hit the kids, according to Waybrant.
At age 14, he ran away to Toronto, lived on the streets and got into trouble. Three times police charged him with assorted offences including assaults and robbery.
In total, Waybrant said he served eight years in penitentiaries and reform school.
“They hit me hard because I’m poor. I got no mom and dad. My mom and dad are divorced and dead. I’ve got no family; I’ve got no school; I’ve got no education and I’m homeless, so I broke into cars and stole stuff.”
Waybrant also developed a drinking problem but was able to kick it 34 years ago. Rightfully, he’s proud of that and jiggles the numerous AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) medallions he wears around his neck to celebrate his sobriety.
“I don’t go to meetings now,” he said. “But when I feel the need to again, I will.”
As tough as things have been, Waybrant has retained a surprising sense of optimism. He said he finally found some good fortune since returning to Sarnia a few years ago.
At first he lived in a rooming house, but that didn’t work out. He tried living in his car under the Bluewater Bridge for a while. And then he went to church services at River City Vineyard on Mitton Street. The shelter there provided a bed.
It wasn’t his favourite place, said Waybrant. Addicts are often sleeping at the shelter and he admits not getting along well with some of them.
But about a year ago, a man at church asked him if he does drugs, drinks or parties. “I said no, just call me Mr. Clean. So he offered me a nice basement suite.”
Waybrant holds up his right hand, bent and crippled by a spike he says went through his palm when he fell off a barn roof years ago in Alberta. The permanent injury means he collects government disability cheques that pay about $1,000 a month. His rent eats up $700 of that.
“I’m used to living on nothing, eating pizzas out of the dumpster, so I’m living like a king now. I do just fine,” he said.
“I’ve got a good landlord. Seven hundred is cheap. My landlord wears a halo.”
It pays to stay sober and to quit smoking cigarettes, he declared. “I’ve got the big screen TV from a guy who died. I don’t sell it. I don’t steal it. I can hook it up. It’s mine!”
The grace of God, the support of Alcoholics Anonymous and his friends keep him content, Waybrant said.
“I found my higher power.”
“This town needs low affordable decent housing. It really does. You’d get a lot of people off the streets.” – Laurie Brownlee. Precariously housed in an apartment where she was attacked.
It’s true what they say about a single life event changing everything.
One unexpected dental bill, a car accident or a house fire and life is no longer affordable.
Melody Hill knows all about it. She and her 84-year-old mom were living together in a rental at Mitton and Devine when they woke up to a fire that destroyed the house and left them homeless.
“I got my mom out and my cat survived but we lost our little dog,” explains Hill. “It was horrible. Within 10 minutes we had $150,000 damage and I was coughing up black stuff for a week.
“We lost everything. I didn’t even have a toothbrush.”
Her mom ended up in hospital with a heart attack the day of the fire. Hill ended up at a girlfriend’s with no idea what she was going to do.
“We had no insurance, so get insurance,” she warns. “It was the worst experience of my life.”
Hill began the search for a new place for the pair to live in Sarnia. Their budget was tight. Hill lives on a monthly cheque of about $1,300 from the Ontario Disability Support Program and her mom collects government CPP and Old Age Security, which generally averages about $15,000 a year.
Initially Hill couldn’t find anything they could afford and worried how long she had before her mom was discharged from the hospital. Eventually, she found a landlord she said was asking for $1,200 a month but settled for $800 plus utilities when he saw the women were desperate.
They moved into the small one-bedroom apartment in a downtown house that Hill calls affordable. She sleeps in the living room because there’s no second bedroom and it’s not unusual for her and her mom to run out of grocery money. They often get free hot meals from the Salvation Army food truck that parks in her neighbourhood a couple of times a week.
“We have a fantastic landlord. We’re warm, happy and safe,” Hill said. “But we were homeless for a while there and having nowhere to live after the fire was very scary, terrifying really.”
She said she is grateful for the community support, the help of her friends who donated clothing after the fire, and the programs that provide free food.
“It’s really nice having the help. These are wonderful meals,” said Hill.
“Our rent right now is exceptional. It’s super cheap. I don’t know what we’d do if it weren’t for that.”
Hill’s neighbour, Laurie Brownlee, also suffered a setback that lead to temporary homelessness.
She was injured in a motorcycle accident four years ago, leaving her unable to work.
She moved to Sarnia and stayed with a friend for about six months before finally getting an apartment she can afford.
“I had to take the insurance off my car to make ends meet,” said Brownlee.
But she doesn’t want to stay in the one-bedroom place she has because she was recently assaulted by another person living in the same building.
“It’s tough. I’ve been looking to move for a long time,” said Brownlee. “I took a hammer to the face when I asked for my shovel back from the person living above me. He was charged.”
Sarnia has a growing homeless problem and there are more women couch surfing than most realize, she said.
“Sarnia was great for a long time but it’s gone to pot again,” said Brownlee who volunteers at a downtown drop-in centre for marginalized people called nightlight. “It’s terrible with the homelessness and vagabonds everywhere. You can’t leave anything out. They’re up on your porch at night while you’re sleeping.
“This town needs low affordable decent housing. It really does. You’d get a lot of people off the streets,” said Brownlee.
NEXT: Part 5 of Stories from the Street. What is being done to help the homeless?