A hard place: Living beside an alley and an abandoned building in Downtown Windsor

Billie-Jo Werner describes herself as a warm-hearted "big mouth" who wants to make downtown a liveable place by building relationships.

'I try to get on a personal level with them and say 'Why are you on the street?''

Billie-Jo Werner has woken up to strangers sleeping on her porch and inside her backyard in downtown Windsor. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Billie-Jo Werner describes herself as a warm-hearted "big mouth" who wants to make downtown a liveable place by building relationships.

But last four years haven't been easy for Werner and her family.

"We fight everyday with having to call the police and the fire chief," said Werner, who lives beside an abandoned home on Vera Place.

She's built a wire gate around her front lawn to protect her home after waking up to find strangers sleeping on her outdoor furniture.

"They would sleep on our porch, like in our chairs," said Werner. 

Billie-Jo Werner describes what life is like in the downtown core of Windsor. 1:01

Sometimes her sons put up tents in the backyard to simulate camping, something the family used to do before moving to Windsor, but homeless people sometimes slept in the tents overnight. 

"They would sleep in our tents because they didn't know where to go," she explained.

So Werner decided instead of reaching out to the police, she'd reach out to the person on her porch. 

"I try to get on a personal level with them and say 'why are you on the street? Is there something I can do, or can I help you go somewhere?'" said Werner.

Long term resident

Werner moved to downtown Windsor to enjoy a life that allows her to walk throughout the city and be close to coffee shops and restaurants. 

She didn't expect she'd be kicking prostitutes off her street and strangers out of her backyard or dealing with squatters doing drugs in the burnt out abandoned building beside her home.

Werner said that the abandoned home next to her has been broken into countless times and occupied by squatters. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

But despite the drama, she has no plans to put up a for sale sign on her fenced in front yard.

"No," said Werner. "No I don't think that would make things better. I think with everyone working together we can get things accomplished."

Coming together

Werner said she's noticed a shift in downtown after the community started to band together and look out for each other's properties.

"We get together, we talk with each other and we try to get people motivated to help in our community and not just sit there and watch things go by," said Werner.

The Executive Director of the Downtown Mission said that most nights all of 116 beds are full. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Sitting on her front porch as the rain drizzled down she remembered the lights she put up when she first moved in —lights someone stole before the fence was put up.

"We had a lot of crime, we did have prostitution and drugs and things like that but with everyone working together we got it cleaned up."

She said her hope now is that there's been enough of a change that she can decorate her house without worrying about what's missing when she opens her door in the morning, or who is sleeping on her furniture. 

An expanding mission

Just down the block from Werner's home are the 116 beds of the Downtown Mission, an emergency homeless shelter that's full most nights, even after a 43-bed expansion this summer.

"It's stretching every resource we have," said Executive Director Ron Dunn, who has been with the Downtown Mission for six years.

Dunn said that the mission has recently noticed a change in the people walking through their doors — most have a combination of mental health and addiction issues that can frighten some people.

The Executive Director of the Downtown Mission in Windsor explains what it's like operating in the city's core. 1:05

"I get that sometimes it's scary," he said. "But we're afraid of things we don't know or don't understand."

Dunn added there's an open invite to anyone who wants to visit and learn more about the issues people who use the Downtown Mission are dealing with. 

"Meet some of the people, understand that these are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, moms and dads," he explained.

Community criticism

Dunn said that the Downtown Mission is committed to working with neighbours to make the downtown core a safe and liveable community, but he knows there are some who aren't happy they're around.

"Some folks, their answer is we shouldn't be here. That's not the answer. We're not the problem, we're part of the solution," said Dunn. "But also we're only a part of the solution."

Ron Dunn is the Executive Director of the Downtown Mission in Windsor. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Dunn said that as the Downtown Mission continues to adapt and grow. They're looking at other avenues in the future to help vulnerable people in the community.

"I think we're going to affordable housing, I think that's next for us," he said, citing numbers that showed close to 5,000 people on waiting lists for affordable housing in Windsor.

Dunn said whatever comes next in the continued push to accommodate the growing number of homeless people in the city will have to be a community effort that includes funding from all levels of government and cooperation from the neighbourhood. 

About the Author

Chris Ensing

CBC News

Chris Ensing is a Video Journalist for CBC Windsor.