The Inn, the city’s emergency shelter which opened back in January, has a new executive director. Brian Elliot, who came on board last month, was employed in the same role previously with Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario. He replaces interim executive director Pastor Cherisse Swarath. In an interview with Elliot this week, we asked what is it about the emergency shelter and St. Thomas that attracted him to the position. “I’ve been involved with non-profits, one way or another, my entire life and so I really saw The Inn as a place in St. Thomas that had been very progressive in trying to find longer-term solutions to the homeless situation.” To minimize the number of homeless individuals in St. Thomas and Elgin, Elliot stresses the need to work with community partners. “Habitat was all about families and, in some cases, individuals and helping them succeed. And The Inn is no different. We’re working with individuals and we’re finding the right supports and the right solutions to allow them to be more successful in their lives. “I think there are a lot of similarities.”
It was a critical talking point throughout this year’s municipal election campaign.
But homelessness and, in particular, its impact on the downtown core has been a front-burner issue now for several years.
To kick off the city council meeting this past Monday (Nov. 7) Danielle Neilson, the city’s Homelessness Prevention and Housing Programs Coordinator initiated a deep dive into the lives of homeless individuals in St. Thomas and Elgin.
Her presentation and subsequent Q & A consumed a good 30 minutes.
She kicked off her information session with a reminder, “I would like to start by acknowledging that the complexity, humanity and tragedy of the impact of homelessness on people’s lives in St. Thomas are no different from what people are experiencing across all of Canada today.”
She continued, “Experiences of homelessness today are the result of deep, historic, system-level errors that have accumulated over decades.
“Such as colonialism and divestments in affordable housing. These combined with other social inequities such as deep poverty, unresolved inter-generational trauma, an inflated and unaffordable housing market, the current cost of living crisis, the impacts of the pandemic – and these are just to name a few – have cumulatively increased housing instability, including occurrences of homelessness at a higher rate than we have ever seen historically before.
As he campaigns for a seat on city council, Devon Church confidently proclaims when elected, not if.
Specifically, “When elected, I will be accountable, dedicated and propel council towards innovation and positive change.”
Church is a registered nurse at Southwestern Public Health who bemoans the lack of lived experience on the present council.
Church feels members of council “were mostly folks from a higher income level trying to figure out what to do with folks from lower incomes.”
Every candidate points to the need for solutions to issues plaguing the downtown core.
Church offers alternatives.
“I believe we need a downtown drop-in space that is accessible to all, that includes food and beds.”
But it is not the existing emergency shelter known as The Inn.
She stresses you have to go for it. Even if that means initiating your charge four years ahead of schedule.
Tara McCaulley had hoped to enter municipal politics in 2026, but now she is seeking a seat on city council in the Oct. 24 municipal vote.
McCaulley feels her experience gained over the past 10 years with the Small Business Enterprise Centre and the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation can be put to good use as the city deals with a variety of challenges.
That’s in addition to her experience dealing with all three levels of government.
“I feel this is a good time,” advises McCaulley. “There are lots of exciting things happening in our community and also some challenges.
She stresses the need for affordable housing is a critical priority along with the health of the downtown core and preparing for future growth.
In a deputation last Monday (Sept. 12) to city council she stressed was devoid of “ill will, malintent or hidden agenda,” Hilary Vaughan hit one out of the park with her no-nonsense presentation on the complex issues plaguing downtown.
In a six-and-a-half-minute span, the St. Thomas lawyer delivered a tell-it-like-it-is synopsis, warning the core area is at a critical threshold.
Her closing remarks left members momentarily flummoxed. Vaughan made it clear she was not open to questions, instead it is time to “find a real solution, in real-time, for real people.”
That can be done by striking a working group to tackle the increasingly dire situation.
Because the picture she painted of the downtown core’s immediate prospects is bleak.
It’s now a three-horse mayoral race in the Oct. 24 St. Thomas municipal vote. Joining Joe Preston is former mayor Heather Jackson and newcomer Gregg McCart, who admits it’s a daunting task trying to unseat a high-profile incumbent.
However, McCart feels he may have an advantage in one area, that being his experience in dealing with homelessness in the city.
With reference to Mayor Preston, he admits, “I kind of like the guy, to be honest. But I believe that he is too far away from this particular problem.”
That problem is the scourge of homelessness, particularly in the downtown core.
McCart continues, “I don’t want to say anything bad, but it is my peers who are suffering the most, as far as income levels.
“And I believe, because of that, I have an advantage over him. So, maybe I can do something.”
He’s the owner of DeNeire’s Gallery of Fine Art in downtown St. Thomas and now Shawn DeNeire is plunging into the fine art of municipal politics.
As of yesterday (Aug. 12), NeNeire was one of 10 individuals seeking to fill eight councillor seats at city hall.
DeNeire was born and raised in St. Thomas and was a Central Elgin Collegiate grad although he also spent time at Arthur Voaden Secondary School and Parkside Collegiate Institute.
Ask why he is eager to sit around the horseshoe in the council chamber and DeNeire will relay the following observation.
“I’ve talked to several businesses on Talbot Street and they haven’t had one council person come down in the last four years and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? I’m so and so and have you got any concerns?’
“Not one. And that bothers me. Who are we being paid by? The taxpayers.
“Who should be in our best interest? The taxpayers.”
I am sure there are members of council who will challenge the above and they have been seen patronizing downtown establishments.
As the calls for Hockey Canada to be held accountable regarding their handling of a growing number of sexual assault allegations escalate, one local MP says it is time to reform the culture within not only that organization but within the Ministry of Sport.
The latter is the domain of MP Pascale St-Onge.
And, the Conservative Shadow Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth this week was one of three MPs who issued a statement on the pair of emergency committee hearings into those allegations.
That would be Elgin-Middlesex-London MP, Karen Vecchio.
In the statement, the trio asserts, “The hearings at the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage into Hockey Canada’s involvement in allegations of sexual assault have heard the testimony of a secretive and unaccountable organization where allegations of sexual assault have been covered up.
“I think it’s very important that we keep in mind that the solution to homelessness is not an emergency shelter. “The solution to homelessness is housing and housing with supports.” That was the salient takeaway from the lengthy discussion at the July 11 council meeting revolving around The Inn, the city’s emergency shelter. The observation, which pivoted the dialogue back on track to long-term solutions instead of short-term fixes, was put forward by Danielle Neilson, the city’s homelessness and housing supervisor. She followed that with, “And, in our community, we have plans, not only in place or being considered, but actions that are working. “And, we have lots to be proud of in St. Thomas.” Proof of that was evident in a media release issued July 8 by Built For Zero, a program of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.