Shelter from the Coming Storms

I don’t really know the situation today, but in the 1950s, working for the church especially as a secretary, I got to know those who were referred to as “stemmers.” They were the dedicated few who every so often rang the glebe house doorbell in search of a dollar or two from whatever priest happened to be around. It became a sort of ritual, the doorbell rang, I answered it and one of the guys would ask to see a priest. I came to know they were not looking for a blessing or forgiveness. What they really needed was alcohol.

Talbot House, Cape Breton

Talbot House, Cape Breton

I remember one man, very polite, a nice man, who would come every so often and I knew that whoever was home would not turn him away. He actually came back once with $2.00 to repay three priests who had each given him a dollar at some point. Of course, his offering was refused and he went away still $2.00 to the good.

The thing is, he had no way of earning money, but he had a home. He wasn’t living on the street. Maybe he lived with a relative kind enough to provide a place for him to stay, I’ll never know, but I thought it was fine that the clergy gave him money when they knew exactly what he planned to do with it. Until 1959, when Fr. John Webb decided to establish Talbot House for men with addiction problems (and let’s face it, in the ’50s, the addiction was alcohol, not the drugs so common today), I’m sure there were those who actually were homeless. Fr. Webb, by the way, asked if it were a good thing to give money to someone on the street when you were pretty sure what he was going to do with it, said, “When you give someone money it becomes his. You have no right to question what he does with it.”

Talbot House became a haven for those willing to follow the rules, which meant no alcohol on the premises or otherwise, and who actually worked at various jobs in and around the property while they recovered from their addictions, which many of them did.


Of course, not everyone who was homeless had a drinking problem and eventually, in 1977, the Community Homeless Shelter was established in Sydney to anyone who found themselves without a roof over their heads or a couch to sleep on. As is still the case, it was in at 6:00 PM, out at 10:00 AM. I visited that house years ago and was very impressed with what it provided those who sought refuge there. Whatever their circumstances, whatever their needs, they were given a bedroom and food and a list of rules by which they had to abide.

Add to these, Transition House for women, established in 1981, Every Woman’s Centre in 1992, Access 808 especially for youth of the area, and it becomes very obvious that the need has only increased and homelessness continues to be a real problem in our community. Although it doesn’t offer shelter as such, I include the Ally Centre of Cape Breton in this list. Established in 1992, it is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens in the community and to create a supportive environment for those infected and/or affected by them.

Homeless person's shelter, Poland.

Homeless person’s shelter in the Polish town of Piaseczno. (Photo by RoodyAlien, CC BY-SA 4.0,, via Wikimedia Commons)

What has me thinking about all this was something I saw while driving in Sydney recently — a small cluster of men and women gathered outside a building in drizzling rain, not, I was sure, waiting for a bus or a drive. It took me a minute (which it shouldn’t have) to realize exactly who they were and why they were there: they were outside the Homeless Shelter. Where else to go when you are unable to return to the shelter until the evening?

The shelter itself has obviously filled an urgent and ever-present need and is supported by a whole group of dedicated people, but is this the most the homeless can expect from society? To wander the streets until they are able to seek shelter later in the day? I know some go to the library and read the papers or magazines that are available while others might drop into the Ally Centre, which has re-opened its comfort center on Bentinck Street, to give people a place to warm up, take a shower or eat. Some go to one of the local coffee spots, as long as they have enough in their pockets to pay for a brew.

The bottom line is that there are homeless among us, and while there are generous groups of people in the community who reach out to these women and men, not having “a place of your own” remains the key problem. In fact, both Transition House and Every Woman’s Centre, as I wrote in February 2018, have been finding apartments for many of their clients, with rents appropriate to their incomes, and both agencies realize what a remarkable and positive change this makes in the lives of these women.


Affordable housing has become a concern across the Maritimes, as CTV’s Natasha Pace reported on November 5, with “[c]alls for action about the lack of affordable housing and increasing rental rates…growing louder.” This is especially true in Halifax where the “discovery of a homeless encampment in a Halifax park” must have been a real eye-opener to Halifax residents taking their daily walks! ACORN Nova Scotia held a rally in the city on November 7 to highlight the need for affordable housing and Halifax has received $8.7 million from the federal government to provide such housing. Sixteen organizations submitted proposals and on Tuesday, HRM council approved funding for projects from the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre, Adsum Women and Children and the North End Community Health Association intended to create 52 units of “truly affordable housing.”

Halifax renters have been hit with unreasonably high rent increases that have caused them to lose their apartments while their landlords renovate and raise the rents for those who can afford them. Fabian Vincent Donovan, a Spryfield resident in attendance at the ACORN rally, told Pace he had lived in the same apartment for the last six years and that, prior to finding a roommate, the high rent was forcing him to choose between eating and taking his medications. He works with ACORN, trying to get the province to institute rent control, something his mother advocated for in the 1970s:

“I’m fighting the same battle,” he said, “and it’s ridiculous.”

The Alley Centre of Cape Breton

CBC Photo

In municipalities across the province, including our own CBRM, land is sold and permits given to developers with no interest in providing affordable housing, even when, as often happens, they get the land for less than its actual value. It would seem more than appropriate to force such developers to include some affordable units among their brand-spanking new apartments, accessible to people on lower incomes. Wishful thinking, perhaps. But it could be done.

It always comes back to the fact that so many of our fellow citizens live on fixed incomes that leave them literally locked out of decent and affordable housing. I always come back to the notion of a guaranteed annual income that would put money in people’s hands, giving them the chance and the responsibility to make their own decisions rather than having others decide what is best for them. In a 2016 Angus Reid Poll, which I have quoted before, 67% of Canadians supported a GAI, although 66% were unwilling to pay higher taxes to fund it and 63% believed it would discourage people from working. While I haven’t checked any similar polls recently, I would be very surprised if the mood of the country has changed at all.

Until it does, homeless shelters will provide the closest thing to a “forever home” that so-called “street people” will ever know. Thank heaven for those in our community who are already putting together various necessities and treats for these, our fellow citizens, as the holiday season approaches.

Yet, they will remain on the outside, looking in.

Featured image: Homeless encampment, Northeast Portland by Graywalls, CC BY-SA , via Wikimedia Commons.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.