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Conversations Lead to Housing Solutions for Elderly, Homeless in St. Thomas, Ont.

Conversations Lead to Housing Solutions for Elderly, Homeless in St. Thomas, Ont.
Don Shaw (in the yellow vest), who serves on his city’s Municipal Accessibility Advisory Committee, prepares to take St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston on a scooter tour of the city.
Marty Lewis, Establish Media
Don Shaw, one of the founding members of the Christian Reformed church plant Destination Church in St. Thomas, Ont., talks with people. Some of those conversations have led to life-changing connections, such as seeing 30 people move from living on the streets to living with older adults in the community—providing a new home for one, and help and company for both.
Shaw moved to St. Thomas 16 years ago with his wife, Linda. He initiated conversations on day one. Navigating St. Thomas on his electric scooter, Shaw goes out of his way to talk to business owners. He stops to speak with seniors trimming their hedges or tending their gardens. And he pauses to greet people on the streets in downtown St. Thomas: “Hi, I’m Don, and now you’ve got a new friend.”

With a prior 24-year career as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Shaw always has an ear to the ground to match the needs of business owners with the skills of those he knows without work. Shaw listens for other needs, too. Many of his senior friends are reluctant to move into nursing homes, yet unable to safely live in their homes alone. They are often lonely. His friends who live on the streets are also lonely. They need dry and dependable homes. As Shaw listened, he began making new connections.

One day, a retired cabinet maker stopped Shaw on the street. He was worried. He needed help, but nursing home care was expensive—one year’s worth would be twice the amount he could raise with the sale of his house. He had no family. Shaw considered this, “What if someone was living with you?” He offered to introduce a young man he had known for three years, interested in woodworking, who was homeless.

Two and a half years ago, the young man moved in. With the senior’s help, he learned cabinet making and completed a woodworking program at Fanshawe College in nearby London, Ont.

Over the past four years, a similar scenario has played out 31 times. Shaw now calls the people who’ve moved in from the streets “helpers.” They assist seniors in everything from shoveling snow and mowing grass to washing the dishes. The pairs—helpers and seniors—also provide company for each other. While Don knows all the helpers through Destination Church, the seniors belong to a variety of churches.

On one street in St. Thomas, there are five homes with helpers. On another, there are seven. Some helpers do weekly grocery shopping for their seniors. Others find skills from earlier work to put to use, such as a former professional painter who repainted his senior’s home.

Bob*, a former ambulance driver whom Shaw met as he was relocating to St. Thomas, has shared First Aid CPR training. Though not homeless, when Bob walked into Destination Church two years ago, “He looked very dejected, so I sat down with him,” said Shaw. He shared Bob’s story: One day, he was called to a severe accident involving his parents. Both his mother and father died in his ambulance. Bob quit his job and went on long-term disability with PTSD. He moved away from the scene of the accident to St. Thomas. “That’s when I met him,” Shaw said.

Bob heard that Destination Church was open every day and he dropped in to talk. Shaw is in the storefront on Mondays. “He told me he was looking for a safe place he could live, that he could afford in St. Thomas,” Shaw said. On the way home from meeting Bob, Shaw came across a senior couple he had known for years, “the husband was out trimming hedges with the old-fashioned, giant, scissor-type clippers. And the wife was pulling weeds in the yard and she was crabbing at him,” afraid that he would have another heart attack. Shaw asked if the two could use help. The couple agreed to meet Bob, and the next morning Bob moved in. He offered to train each of the other 30 helpers in First Aid CPR, which he updates annually.

Except for Bob—who hadn’t been homeless but was simply relocating—Shaw hasn’t made a connection unless he’s known the potential helper for a year or more. It’s also important to him that they have no history with drugs or alcohol. He sees the work of connecting seniors with helpers to be God’s work for him, but once Shaw introduces a helper to a senior, the rest is up to them. “All I do is introduce people ... and the senior gets to decide if they want someone to live with them.”

So far, none of the seniors have charged rent. It is up to the seniors and helpers to discuss what would happen in the event of an accident or death. Often, the adult children of the seniors are living far away. “When they find out that Mom or Dad has someone living with them, someone they can count on, with medical training even, they’re usually thrilled,” Shaw said. In fact, since matching the last helper, Shaw has been approached by eight adult children to find someone willing to live with their parents.

While Destination Church is not officially involved in Shaw’s work to match seniors and helpers, Beth Fellinger, pastor, enjoys seeing his gifts and creativity at work. “Seeing the need and talking with people, he created an alternative way of helping people with housing,” Fellinger said. “By Don engaging with this expression … he, too, lives into the DNA of Destination—adding value to people for the sake of Jesus Christ.”

Shaw hopes people will be inspired by what is happening in St. Thomas, seeing big change can come with just an introduction.

“It's a reciprocal relationship that meets many people's needs,” he said. “I am blessed by the people I meet, and the blessing flows through to others.”

*We are using only Bob’s first name and have not identified other helpers or seniors in this story because of the vulnerabilities they may experience by being named.

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