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Tillsonburg, Ont.'s 1st overnight emergency shelter opens in a church as small-town housing needs grow

Shawn Shapton, executive director of Operation Sharing, stands in the new Tillsonburg shelter housed inside the Avondale United Church. It has room to sleep 12 people. (Submitted by Shawn Shapton - image credit)
Shawn Shapton, executive director of Operation Sharing, stands in the new Tillsonburg shelter housed inside the Avondale United Church. It has room to sleep 12 people. (Submitted by Shawn Shapton - image credit)

An overnight temporary shelter opened for the first time in Tillsonburg, Ont., on Wednesday night as the community works to support a growing number of people who are struggling.

The shelter, inside Avondale United Church, can sleep 12 people and will run for four to eight weeks as the weather remains cold.

Tillsonburg, a farming community southeast of London, has a population of 18,000.

"As a downtown church, I think we have a role to play," said congregant Oliver Gauld.

He's also also a member of the church's property and finance committee, which first floated the idea of locating the shelter in the church.

The church is not running the shelter, only housing it.

Operation Sharing, a longtime social services organization based in Woodstock, is co-ordinating supports and care along with four trained on-site staff, between 7 p.m., when the doors open, until 8 a.m., when clients will be asked to leave for the day.

It's a place where they are safe, there's staff there, there's someone to talk to. - Shannon Beadow, Salvation Army, Tillsonburg

"There's never been an alternative to homeless shelters outside of Woodstock," said Operation Sharing executive director Shawn Shapton, who in the past has assisted people sleeping rough in Tillsonburg by bringing them to the Woodstock shelter.

"We've recognized that we're bringing people to a community where they really don't want to be, moving them from their community supports, a community they know and where they call home," he said. "So we're giving people an opportunity to stay in that place and provide them with shelter."

According to Shapton, the growing need in Tillsonburg "can be tied back directly to the mental health crisis and the addiction crisis we're seeing right across North America."

Submitted by Shawn Shapton
Submitted by Shawn Shapton

Need is growing

Shannon Beadow, The Salvation Army's community and family services associate in Tillsonburg, also says more people in the community are struggling.

"We've had so many people moving in from outlying areas and the job market has been diluted," she said. "And the jobs that are accepting are pretty low paying."

Combine that with the skyrocketing cost of living, and Beadow said she's seeing more people sleeping rough in Tillsonburg, including a growing encampment on the outskirts of town.

Beadow also pointed to a recent report from the municipality that shows the number of people who haven't paid their property taxes has climbed from 24 in 2020 to 638 last year.

Town of Tillsonburg, Dec. 12 agenda
Town of Tillsonburg, Dec. 12 agenda

The Salvation Army currently receives a $20,000 grant from Oxford County to put people up at a local motel when they have nowhere else to sleep at night. On Tuesday night, the Salvation Army paid for motel rooms for seven people, Beadow said.

Beadow is excited about the new shelter.

"It's a place where they are safe, there's staff there, there's someone to talk to," she said. "If in the middle of the night they're having a crisis, many of our people are various stages of recovery and they don't sleep through the night so they wake up, they're alone in a hotel room, there's nobody there."

Submitted by Shawn Shapton
Submitted by Shawn Shapton

"It is a big undertaking," said Gauld. "In terms of the routine, and the flow of people in and out of the church, it's big."

Shapton called Avondale United Church "a phenomenal, willing host."

"The facility is perfect. It's a large open space that's very welcoming. It has a full commercial kitchen and a single stall bathroom directly off of the room. It couldn't be a better set up."