Homeless in St. Thomas
Recently Andrew Gunn and I met with Sandy Westaway, who runs the Inn Out of the Cold shelter in St. Thomas. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the homeless people in our small town and the details shocked me. A significant number of people are homeless and rely on the shelter to provide clothing, food, emotional support, and a warm bed. This is why the shelter is trying to get funding to operate year-round. The people that they help are the ones who need assistance the most. Most of them cannot hold jobs for one reason or another, have health issues, or are addicted to drugs. Many need consistent help. The Inn Out of the Cold provides this service, but only for six months out of twelve. From November 2018 to April 2019, the Inn welcomed 232 guests with roughly half of those individuals needing to stay overnight at least once.
Inn Out of the Cold is located at Central United Church (135 Wellington Street), and is supported greatly by the church members. In the past, the Inn has provided warm beds, three meals a day, clothing, and various types of support to guests. They have a closet which is full of donated canned goods from the residents of St Thomas and some companies as well. The church is currently one of the biggest supporters of the shelter and the members regularly volunteer in the kitchen, assist with programs, set up beds, and generally provide help to those in need. Sandy told us about one 13-year-old boy who loves to cut and serve pie to the guests. On days that the church holds services, the residents of the Inn are invited to come to the sanctuary upstairs to listen to the sermon, sing songs, and congregate with others.
Now, when I first saw the basement of Central United Church, I could not believe that they were able to accommodate so many people in such a small space. There is a small kitchen where the staff and volunteers prepare food for everyone. We were shown a storage room in the back where cots are stored when the Inn is not running, as well as some simple bedding. Another storage room is connected to the kitchen and dining area and contains food and supplies. Lastly, I was shown the gymnasium where the cots are set up overnight. I thought there is no way that they could care for dozens of people at a time in this space, but they do. There is one tiny shower in a small room. It is incredible what is being accomplished by the staff and volunteers.
When the Inn closes in April, the homeless must find other accommodations. In past years, staff and volunteers were successful in finding the guests at least a temporary place to stay, but last year they were not able to do so for at least ten people. “They maybe were able to couch-surf,” Sandy noted, “but you will find them down at the [Athletic Park] grounds, behind Wal-Mart, you’ll see one guy living on Moore Street under the [BX] tower there, in the shadow of the tower.”
From my perspective, it is not right that most of us have a house, warm beds, and food, and for some reason in St. Thomas, like in many other small cities and towns, we ignore or at least minimize the issue of local homelessness. Right now, the City of St. Thomas is contemplating a new animal shelter, which may require a million dollars or more to build. This is an important item, for sure, but it would seem strange if our City Council focussed on this expenditure before addressing the obvious need for a satisfactory homeless shelter for people. Mayor Joe Preston has pointed out this juxtaposition. How might Council choose to help? It will be interesting to watch this unfold. The Inn costs $230,000 to run for 6 months; in order to run for 12 months, it would cost $460,000, plus the cost of an Executive Director. Funding in the past has come from the United Way, local donors, and the City. There needs to be a sustainable model.
From what Sandy told us, I believe that the staff and volunteers at the Inn Out of the Cold are doing a great thing, but they need more help from the community, plus the City and Province. The Inn relies on donations and have made a lot out of what is available. The guests are grateful and appreciative. One thing that Sandy said that stuck out to me was how they maintain a peaceful environment: “A lot of the people have been in jail, so some people know how to kind of be the top-of-the-mountain in that situation, and those guests have offered to help us out and make sure that everyone behaves.” This is laudable, although perhaps not ideal. Everyone there is doing what they can, though, to help the homeless of St Thomas. It is important to note that children can be homeless, too, and this is a challenging environment for kids.
If the Inn cannot stay open year-round, the homeless will have to continue to sleep on the streets and be in potentially dangerous situations. With no food or a warm place to go, they will not stay safe. As residents of St Thomas, is it our duty to help those who need it, especially if we have the means? If you have extra bedding, canned goods, cots, money or even spare time, you can stop by the Central United Church to make a donation or ask to help out.
Thinking about this experience, what impacted me the most was the fact that I could have easily ended up at the Inn myself. I have been living on my own for a year now, and I was couch-surfing the first week. I was lucky enough to have friends who knew how to help me and figure out where to go to get help to stay off the streets. I went to the YWCA, and I am now living with a couple roommates in St. Thomas. I am grateful for everyone who has helped me get where I am now, but seeing the shelter and imagining how I could have ended up in a different situation made me tear up a bit. If there is a way you can help others stay off the streets and in a warm space, please do it. With the proper help and motivation, people can reach their full potential.