Shelter opens in West Elgin as rural homelessness issues worsen

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A housing coalition in Elgin County has opened the region’s first emergency homeless shelter in a sign of worsening rural homelessness.

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The Homelessness Coalition of West Elgin and Dutton Dunwich – home to a combined population of nearly 9,000 people – opened St. Mary’s Parish Emergency Shelter in West Lorne on February 18.

“I’m so happy the shelter is going to open, and we’re going to run it as a pilot project probably for about four to six weeks,” said coalition member and councilor for Ward 1 in the borough of Dutton Dunwich, Patricia Corneil. .

“At the end, we will hopefully re-evaluate to find a permanent building and go from there.”

The coalition, which includes the West Elgin Community Health Centre, service organizations, concerned residents, and municipal and provincial leaders, will operate the shelter at the Church Hall from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. every evening until at the end of March.

The new shelter comes after a month of searching for housing to accommodate growing numbers of homeless people in small towns, a crisis that Tanya Dale, the health center’s rural systems navigator, faces daily.

Dale, who connects homeless or at-risk people to resources and housing, says she serves 35 clients, more than double the number on her list last summer.

Elgin is one of many counties in southwestern Ontario struggling with increased rural homelessness exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and tight housing market. A recent report by the housing coalition estimates that residents of Elgin are waiting between two and nine years for subsidized housing.

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However, the problem is not always as obvious as roaming in big cities, as individuals are often couch surfing or staying with friends.

“Rural roaming is very different from urban roaming,” Dale said, citing the range of customers she supports as an example.

She said she was working with clients between the ages of 18 and 75 and supporting more homeless families, many of them young single mothers with children, than ever before.

“So what does it look like? Dale said. “It sounds like families who have been living in our rural area for a long time, renting and… just don’t have the money to pay market rent these days.”

In response, the coalition dedicated a section of the shelter to house a family of three, in addition to the five beds available for people seeking shelter.

The shelter will be supervised by at least two volunteers each night. People using the space will receive basic items like clothing and food and will be able to access other services at the nearby community health center.

“It’s small, but it’s big,” Dale said. “He’s got a big heart, and it’s a neat little space, and it’s right in front of the health center so that clients can (access)… my reception facilities, so they don’t get stuck in chronic homelessness right away and can keep moving forward with their goals.

The coalition has already received support from area businesses such as a local cafe, hardware store and grocery store. They still accept items such as mini fridges, pillows, toiletries and a kettle.

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But none of this would be possible without the Catholic Church stepping up to offer its space, Corneil said.

“We are pleased to partner with community organizations in West Lorne and beyond to provide new services to those in need,” Matthew Clarke, communications director for the Diocese of London, wrote in an email.

Clarke said supporting the most vulnerable is one of the church’s core values, adding that they “look forward to the successful opening of the shelter” on Friday.

Although the Catholic Church partners with organizations to offer various programs, it is not as common to provide accommodation space.

If successful and the need remains, Corneil said they hope to find a location to run the refuge next winter.

Meanwhile, Corneil encourages Elgin County residents to support the most vulnerable not just through the winter, but well into the future. “I firmly believe with all my heart that our community needs to come together and we need to help ours,” Corneil said. “It’s been really difficult for a lot of people over the last few years.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

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