Bancroft, Ont., is traditionally one of the province’s poorest regions. As more and more ex-Torontonians move in, property values have quadrupled in less than five years, and rent prices are high. For the first time, this rural small town of 3,500 is dealing with a homelessness crisis.
Town council asked Rev. Lynn Watson of St. Paul’s United if the church could help. Their shelter, the Sanctuary, opened in December 2019 — and closed less than a month later. She spoke with Sherwood Hines about what went wrong, what she learned and how these issues are more important than ever.
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On the shelter’s beginning:
I was asked to attend a meeting of the town council’s community safety and well-being committee to discuss the rise in homelessness. Could St. Paul’s help? This was a personal issue, because I have a daughter who has struggled with mental health and addictions, and it was a shelter that kept her safe until she got off the streets.
Still, my first response was to say no; a shelter would be too much chaos for the church. But I knew the town was in a real crisis. We began handing out 20 gift certificates a month for the local supermarket. They disappeared in less than an hour. The congregation stepped up and doubled the money, but they still don’t last a day.
I thought about how back in the 1970s St. Paul’s sponsored four Vietnamese families, and in 2016 we rallied the community to support a Syrian family. I just knew our congregation would support the idea. I took the shelter proposal to the elders and the stewards. They unanimously approved, and a week later the Sanctuary opened.
On what happened:
The response from the community was overwhelming. We were bombarded with volunteers, food, clothes, bedding. We received financial support from other churches.
But it didn’t take long for everyone involved — the volunteers, the police, the fire department — to recognize that we were in over our heads. We opened with beds for six people. On our last night, we had 20 people. There were too many guests. We had to vacate the space by 8 a.m. for other community groups. How do you make people leave when it’s -20 C outside? None of us were trained to deal with opioid and meth addictions, or how best to de-escalate a violent situation. The final straw occurred when a man overdosed on sleeping pills. Thankfully, he survived. We realized we were losing control of the situation. We kept our guests safe from the elements until we couldn’t do it any longer.
On what she learned:
The first thing you realize is that hoarding and cheating are built into our economics. People who are successful at this game judge others harshly. We have to remember that when our neighbours suffer, we all suffer. Poverty, mental illness and trauma are at the heart of the crisis.
Homeless shelters let politicians off the hook; they don’t have to be responsible for solving the problem. We must continue to hold our municipal leaders’ feet to the fire on the housing crisis — even when they continue to do nothing.
We have to remember that when our neighbours suffer, we all suffer.
We underestimated how big the problem is. The fact that our congregation stepped up tells me there is a will to do something. We can’t just look inwards or be a Sunday morning church. We have to be more inclusive.
Sherwood Hines is a freelance writer who lives in Bancroft, Ont.
This interview first appeared in Broadview’s September 2021 issue with the title “‘We were in over our heads.'” It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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