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Tiny Aylmer, Ont., needs a homeless shelter, and these people have stepped up to help

The lack of affordable housing in Aylmer, Ont. has led to people having nowhere to sleep, but on cold, bitter nights, they're welcomed into a shelter run by volunteers in a church basement.

8 people used the emergency overnight shelter last year and 22 have used it so far this winter

Paul Cowley, Sue Dekrarker and Jenny McMullin are three of the Aylmer residents behind the town's first homeless shelter, in the basement of a church. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

For Sue Dekraker, it was when someone looking for a warm place to stay broke into a utility trailer she had on her property, using the pink insulation for bedding. 

For her friend, realtor Jenny McMullin, it was a winter day three years ago, when she locked herself out of her home without a coat or shoes and realized that some people were spending nights out in that cold. 

"I thought, 'This is crazy. We can't have people living like this. We have to do something.' I didn't even know we had homeless people here," said Dekraker, a property manager in the small town of Aylmer, Ont., pop. 7,500. 

Dekraker helped the person living in her trailer to the nearest homeless shelter in St. Thomas, about 20 minutes away. But she thought something needed to be done closer to home. 

"Affordable housing is so hard to come by now. We all saw it coming and we've been trying to work with agencies to make more of it available, but the red tape is horrible," Dekraker said. 

To fill the gap for those who have nowhere else to go, McMullin and Dekraker started making phone calls and eventually landed on St. Paul's United Church, a yellow-brick building on the town's main drag. The church was willing to give up their basement for those without a warm place to stay at night during the winter. 

Growing need for help

Aylmer has most recently been in the news because of anti-mask protests and a local pastor and his congregation defying lockdown news

But last year, its first year of operation, the East Elgin Housing Initiative Emergency Shelter saw eight people stay overnight, from Nov. 1 until March 31. This year, that number has ballooned to 22. 

Some nights, there is no one staying at the shelter in the church basement. Other nights there are as many as six people. 

"We don't have an absolute number of people who are homeless here because this is a small community, and the small community mentality is one in which you try to keep inadequacies hidden," said Paul Cowley, who came on board with the shelter project last year. 

The East Elgin Housing Initiative is open from November until the end of March. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Cowley moved to Aylmer in 2002 from Toronto and retired in 2016 after a career in education. He tried to help a nephew who was struggling to find emergency shelter in St. Thomas, and began to volunteer with Inn Out of the Cold there. 

"The frustration of trying to find appropriate services and facilities for my nephew made me realize that this was a much broader issue," Cowley said. 

He is now the East Elgin Housing Initiative's only employee, paid for by a provincial grant. He oversees the shelter and helps organize volunteers. 

'The need is huge'

"The need in Aylmer is absolutely huge, but we don't really get to see on a daily basis people in our daily lives who are in need," Cowley said. "Looking in from the outside, after being here for a short period of time, it soon became evident that there were issues in this town that were intentionally kept quiet." 

Last winter, volunteers sat for 12-hour shifts in the church basement, waiting for those who need help to show up. This year, anyone who needs a place to stay can ring the doorbell of the shelter and be connected to a volunteer who is on call and can come down to open the door and stay. 

"They come in, they get a meal, they get a hygiene kit," said Dekraker. "Everything we get is from this community. We put out a call for soup and it comes. This town is great with donations.

"I don't care if they're drug addicts, alcohol addicts, have mental health problems, they're still people. That's why we're here, to help them." 

'Not a choice'

The volunteers didn't know much about running a homeless shelter, but they saw a need and learned as they went along, said McMullin. 

"It's very humbling to see the different men and women who have come through our doors, just knowing their stories, where they've come from, and how close any of us are to being where they are," she said. "This is not something that any of them chose." 

Sean Doyle helps navigate the social services system for people in Aylmer, and runs the Family Central Apartments, which has eight affordable units. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

In the morning, those who stay at the shelter are directed to Sean Doyle, a social worker who runs Family Central Apartments. It's a unique program that provides eight affordable and geared-to-income units and connections to social services, helping people navigate the complicated system. 

This Friday, one of the people who has stayed in the shelter will be moving into his own place. It's all hands on deck, with volunteers helping him find clothes, housewares, furniture and other things he might need. 

"I am always amazed at the size of the heart of the people in this community and how far they're willing to go," Doyle said. 

The group has started working with municipal officials to get more federal and provincial funding for its program and other social services. 

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