Wells rekindles goal for homeless shelter

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Don Wells just couldn’t do it.

The Wallaceburg-area man suffering from advanced prostrate cancer announced two months ago that he was abandoning plans for a local homeless shelter, but has reconsidered.

“I was tired and I thought the situation might be handled in other ways, but I don’t believe that’s going to be enough,” he said. “I had so many people tell me that I shouldn’t give up, and then when the weather turned cold I knew that there were people suffering who needed help.”
Wells spoke before a crowd of 40 at the St. Joseph’s Community Centre Thursday evening, discussing his efforts over more than three decades in Sarnia and Owen Sound.

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He first began in 1982 when he was involved in founding the Inn of the Good Shepherd, and seven years ago he was instrumental in starting River City Vineyard, both in Sarnia. In between, while living in Owen Sound, he started a similar effort.

Wells said the 10-year homelessness plan developed by the municipality doesn’t go far enough.

“I don’t want to say anything against anyone who is trying to help, but more needs to be done than to just give someone a room for the night.”

The plan calls for the creation of a community of service providers working together to ensure no individual or family is without stable housing for longer than a month. One key feature is a 24-hour homeless response line (519-354-6628) that began operating in the summer.

Valerie Colasanti, Chatham-Kent’s director of employment and social services, said the municipality’s “housing first” model has been developed with a variety of community partners and is the best strategic fit for today’s circumstances.

“From our own perspective, the bricks-and-mortar shelter approach just isn’t financially viable,” she said.

The housing-first model provides immediate short-term shelter, followed by a rapid transition into whatever social program is appropriate to the individual.

“We have many partners in the community and we’re always happy to work with them,” she said.

Wells said poverty and a lack of dignity lead to the hopelessness and isolation, and without addressing those issues, the problem will continue.

“I don’t think the people involved have been down and out, and until you have been, you just can’t understand it,” he said. “It brings you to your knees.”

Wells successfully fought drug and alcohol addictions more than 30 years ago that helped him emerge with a mission to help others.

“When you’re down, you feel like a failure and you feel like you’re alone,” he said. “The idea of a shelter is that you realize that others are going through what you are and your find strength and comradeship.”

The municipal plan calls homelessness in the community “invisible” but increasing, comments Wells says are half right.

“The problem is growing but it isn’t invisible,” he said. “People are sleeping in abandoned buildings, in cars and wherever they can crash for a night.”

Without a support system, Wells said the homeless often turn to substance abuse.

“It’s difficult to deal with the constant pain, so people turn to something for relief, except that it’s a false relief.”

Wells said it would take a co-ordinated effort to bring the idea of a shelter to fruition.

“I’m a senior citizen and I have health problems. We need other people involved.”

He said he will travel anywhere in the community and speak with anyone who wants to hear what he has to say.

“I want to spread the word, so if someone wants to call me (519-328-1363), I’m available.”

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