London

'It's not a struggle to survive every day anymore,' says Londoner at city's temporary shelter

Aaron Bourget is one of the 32 people living in a temporary shelter in McMahen Park, one of two sites that the City of London along with several social agencies opened this winter to provide safe, heated spaces for people who sleep rough.

Aaron Bourget, 38, says he's been able to focus on establishing a long-term plan to get permanent housing

Aaron Bourget, 38, is one of 32 people currently living at the temporary shelter on Elizabeth Street. The city launched two temporary shelters to keep people from sleeping rough this winter. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

Aaron Bourget describes a small room, in a retrofitted trailer, with a bed, electricity and heat as a "luxurious" home. 

He's one of the 32 people living at a temporary shelter located at 652 Elizabeth Street, one of two sites that the City of London along with several social agencies have opened up this winter to provide safe, heated spaces for people who sleep rough as part of the city's $2.3-million Winter Response Program.

"It's not a struggle to survive every day anymore," Bourget told CBC News.

Like many, it was one event that left Bourget, a former retail manager, homeless more than a year ago. 

"I had an apartment, a full-time job. I lived comfortably, but then I went to jail [for something I didn't do] ... I lost my job, lost my apartment, all my stuff. Everything I had was gone."

Eventually, Bourget became one of the dozens of people living in a homeless encampment at Wellington Valley Park, commonly referred to as "the valley." There, people lived in tents and tarps and tried to build homes with whatever they had or could find, with no electricity, no heating and no running water.

Dozens of people lived inside makeshift homes on this floodplain in Wellington Valley Park. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"Survival is all you live for back there. You had no time to think about anything else, really, like trying to replace an I.D., for example, was the last thing on your list when you need to find firewood now or cover your head up now or try to secure the area that you've got out there, because it's all on you out there." 

Bourget said living at the temporary shelter on Elizabeth Street has allowed him to live life beyond basic survival and look for ways to get back on track. 

A team of on-site staff from WISH, the Winter Interim Solution to Homelessness coalition, helps residents connect with different supports and services they may need, from medical appointments to mental health counselling and addiction services. Residents also receive support to get their paperwork ready in order to be connected with housing services. 

"The volunteers have been working with me personally to help develop my plan to get back on top of things," Bourget said. "I'm getting my housing applications filled out. I'm getting my paperwork, which hasn't been looked at for the longest time, filled out. I got medical appointments." 

The individual rooms may be small, but they offer a roof, a bed, electricity and heat. Residents also have access to a common space, washrooms, showers and laundry service. The facility also has wifi. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Meals and snacks are also provided on site and Bourget said one of the hottest commodities that the facility features are the washrooms and showers located in a building adjacent to the portable shelters. 

"Having showers with hot water is a big thing for us here, especially after living in the valley for so long because we had nothing like that down there."

One person permanently housed, 82 people sheltered this winter

On Wednesday, Debbie Kramers, one of the city's homeless prevention managers, said one person who was living at the shelter on Elizabeth Street has been housed. 

"We hope to continue to gradually reduce capacity because there won't be as much of a need for capacity in these portable shelter units," she said. 

On Tuesday, the city opened the second temporary shelter at 415 York Street, which houses 30 people. Kramers said that between the two sites and local shelters, the city has been able to provide safe, heated spaces for 82 people who were sleeping rough this winter.

While the Winter Response program ends in April, Kramers hopes to have as many people as possible permanently housed before then. 

"The [portable shelters] are not a long-term solution. It's supposed to be temporary to get us through the winter, to get us through the pandemic and to help support individuals in our community while we help them find housing." 

"Come April, if individuals didn't obtain housing then we would look to access our traditional shelter system," she added. 

For Bourget, the hope is that the plan that he and the team at the site have put in place for him goes accordingly and that he can secure permanent housing by then, but he still worries for others living in rough conditions. 

"There are people still out there and we can't forget about them. It's harsh out there on these cold nights and if anyone can do anything to help and support these people, I think they can definitely do their best to try to make that happen." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sofia Rodriguez

Reporter/Editor

Sofia Rodriguez is a multimedia journalist with CBC News in London. You can email her at sofia.rodriguez@cbc.ca

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