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Helping the homeless in Amherst

A group of citizens is working on establishing a homeless shelter in Amherst. Attending the first meeting this week were (clockwise, from left) Alison Lair, Michael Liddell, Gwen Kerr, Shiho Sato, Donna Farrell, Michelle Harrison and Coleen Dowe.
A group of citizens is working on establishing a homeless shelter in Amherst. Attending the first meeting this week were (clockwise, from left) Alison Lair, Michael Liddell, Gwen Kerr, Shiho Sato, Donna Farrell, Michelle Harrison and Coleen Dowe. - Andrew Wagstaff

New community group established to create shelter

AMHERST, N.S. – There are homeless people in this town and the surrounding county, and a group is working to make sure a shelter is available for them.

A group tentatively known as the Working Group for the Homeless held its first meeting this week at the Cumberland YMCA, and is looking into funding options for a project that would start with a needs assessment, and eventually put a roof over the heads of those in need.

“It’s becoming more and more evident that there is a need for a shelter in the community,” said Alison Lair, community support coordinator for the Homelessness Prevention and Outreach Program at the YMCA.

“We’re seeing a lot of people coming through this program who don’t have anywhere to go, and many community members who have for many, many years known about the problem of homelessness in Amherst and the county,” she said.

The need is definitely there, according to Lair, who said she just learned this week of two individuals who were sleeping rough around town. Victims of recent local house fires were also in need.

After gathering a group of local stakeholders in March to discuss the potential for the project, Lair put together the new committee from those who expressed interest in participating. Attending this week’s meeting were Lair, Michael Liddell, Gwen Kerr, Shiho Sato, Donna Farrell, Michelle Harrison and Colleen Dowe.

The group has identified a number of areas that require immediate attention, such as a needs assessment, according to Kerr.

“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of homelessness here but a lot of it is unseen, whether it’s young people couch surfing, or families in cars,” she said. “We hear the stories but, until we put together some numbers… once we get that type of information together it helps us understand what the real needs are in the community and what we can address first.”

What eventually takes form as a homeless shelter in Amherst will depend on things like the number of beds needed, the proximity to the Trans-Canada highway, the properties and funds available.

The group’s vision is to take on males, females and youth, in a house with separate sections, but are still determining if that will be possible. Youth are technically the responsibility of their parents or the department of community services, Dowe explained.

“If our vision comes true, then the house could be separated so families can stay together, and separate sections would be available for youth and others for males and females,” she said. “Our ultimate goal, and what we end up with, will depend on what we truly find out.”

The group will be applying for funding grants, and is now being set up as a charitable organization, a process that could take six months.

“In the meantime, if you see someone who appears to be homeless, your best course is to call the police, because they do have more immediate resources in helping those people so they are safe,” said Kerr. “Hopefully, someday, the police will come knocking on our door.”

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