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'Heartbeat away from homelessness': St. Thomas coalition holds consultation on poverty reduction strategies

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In Elgin County, there is both visible and invisible poverty.

“I have both lived in poverty and I have lived not in poverty,” said Lillian Christine Sorko. “I've had a little bit of both worlds recently.”

Having heart surgery a year ago, Sorko said she is “a bit behind.” She’s also recently moved her daughter and four grandchildren into her home.

“My daughter was evicted at the beginning of the month, and it's a ‘renoviction,’” said Sorko. “She has four children, and she's struggling immensely. We're kind of house sharing right now, and I'm probably one heartbeat away from homelessness because we're overcrowded.”

It is estimated that more than 12,000 people in St. Thomas and Elgin County are living below the poverty line.

Wednesday, the St. Thomas-Elgin Coalition to End Poverty held a community consultation at Memorial Arena in St. Thomas.

St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston and Kelly Ziegner, president and CEO of United Way Elgin Middlesex, take in the community consultation put on by the St. Thomas-Elgin Coalition to End Poverty on June 12, 2024. (Brent Lale/CTV News London)

“Although we have about 10 per cent of folks who are living in low income, we also have a really great and caring community who's really coming out to do this work,” said Randi Gregoire, chair of the coalition. “It's evident by having over 130 people sign up to come today from all different areas and walks of life that people really care.”

Those people included members of municipal government, business leaders, volunteers, and people like Sorko who have lived experience.

The day had breakout sessions and featured speakers.

“Although we need to support people where they are now and make sure that their needs are met with things like the food bank and our food provider’s network, it's also important to work towards preventing these things from happening,” said Gregoire.

The coalition brought in Paul Born, the founder of Vibrant Communities Canada who have helped over 400 municipalities with poverty reduction strategies.

Randi Gregoire, chair of the St. Thomas-Elgin Coalition to End Poverty, speaks to 130 people during a community consultation on June 12, 2024. (Brent Lale/CTV News London)

“What's important to understand is that in the last 10-15 years, St. Thomas-Elgin has reduced poverty by 50 per cent,” said Born.

He praised the work already being done, but wanted to spark conversation and take ideas to the next level.

Earlier in the day, Sean Dyke, CEO of the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation, told the crowd that business is booming and that will allow more money to go into social services.

“Whenever there is prosperity, there is the opportunity to reduce poverty,” said Born. “You have one of the most dramatic reductions in homelessness in the entire country. A 30 per cent reduction in homelessness in seven months. That is remarkable. I think that Elgin-St. Thomas is going to have the most dramatic reduction of poverty in the country, and it's going to happen in the next five years.”

People sit outside the Inn out of the Cold homeless shelter in St. Thomas, Ont. on June 12, 2024. (Brent Lale/CTV News London)

That would be great news for people like Liz Windover.

“I really rely right now on my child tax benefit and my Ontario works,” said Windover, who is also navigating assessments of autism for herself, as well as her three children. “What helps the most is the fact that I am in geared-to-income housing. My rent is far, far less than market value. Without some of those pieces, and without some of those community supports, I wouldn't be able to make ends meet the way that I do.”

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