With both city homeless shelters at capacity people are left to the cold

The Santuary is housed at River City Vineyard on Mitton Street. Journal Photo

Troy Shantz

The River City Sanctuary is a busy place these days, and that’s not a great thing.

The homeless shelter on Mitton Street has capacity for 22 people. But these days it’s filled almost every night, which means housing manager Owen Vroom must turn people away, with no idea where to send them.

“I feel bad for each person,” said Vroom, standing in the active front lobby at River City Vineyard.

“It’s not good; it’s cold outside. You have to become a little bit hardened because you can only help so many people.”

Another troubling trend is a rapid rise in the number of women seeking shelter for the first time, he said.

The Sanctuary is a men’s shelter and lacks the facilities for women with nowhere else to go.

Some do, however, rest for a time in the Warm Up Café, which has couches and is stocked with warm drinks, snacks and Netflix.

They’re invited to take a hot shower and visit the free clothing store down the hall before heading back onto the street, Vroom said.

“At least we know they’re getting fed, and we make sure they have clothes.”

As reported last month, homelessness is on the rise in Sarnia, fueled by drug addiction and a shortage of affordable housing.

Rising rent prices, workers arriving for the Nova Chemicals’ expansion, and surging enrolment at Lambton College have added to the market pressure.

Sarnia has two homeless shelters and both are full. The Good Shepherd’s Lodge, which a year ago averaged about 15 residents, reaches its capacity of 25 people each night, officials say.

Those who can’t find shelter are sleeping in doorways, beneath overpasses and outside the hospital emergency department.

Vroom said many are suffering from drug addiction.

“I’ve seen too much of it,” he said, sadly. “It’s a major contributor to people becoming homeless. You don’t pay your rent because you want your next hit.”

He said he almost misses the days when heroin was the big problem.

“When people were addicted to heroin, they could recover from that. But now it’s crystal meth … opiates, fentanyl. It’s a whole different ball game.”

A proposed residential addiction treatment centre in Sarnia, apparently in limbo, would help enormously, Vroom said.

In the meantime, The Sanctuary hosts almost daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings that draw about a dozen attendees. Shelter residents join and add their perspective.

“We are basically a detox … unofficially,” Vroom said. “We have a good group of guys who have recovered and they kind of steer them in the right direction.

“I really appreciate that, because it takes a village.”

One ray of hope is the Sanctuary’s housing program. Funded by Lambton County, it has helped place more than 100 people in city apartments over its first two years, Vroom said.

About 40 people are in transitional housing, which River City staff monitor closely, handling rent and bill payments until tenants are placed.

Another 30 to 40 are on a waitlist to join the program.

Vroom said any and all donations of food, money or clothing are welcome and can be dropped off Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

River City Sanctuary is located at 260 Mitton St. N.