City steps ups cleaning of bus shelters in bid to address issue of homeless people gathering inside

The City of Winnipeg is working to address crowds of people experiencing homelessness loitering in bus shelters, a city councillor says.

More people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg have resorted to shacking up in Winnipeg Transit bus shelters amid the red level COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place in the city since Nov. 2, 2020. A similar phenomenon occurred during the initial lockdown last spring, according to End Homelessness Winnipeg.

But CBC News has witnessed as many as a dozen people staying in bus shelters for hours at a time, some wearing masks while others do not — which goes against Manitoba public health orders. At the same time, some of the people are using illegal substances in the shelters, and needles and debris are often left lying around.

“We’ve stepped up cleaning in bus shelters; it has been an increasing problem recently,” said Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface), who is also the chairman of the city’s Transit Advisory Committee.

“Certainly I don’t believe it’s city policy to ignore public health orders. We are doing everything we can to enforce public health orders, in terms of how they’re interpreted from the chief medical officer.”

The Winnipeg Police Service does not track crimes linked to bus shelters specifically, a WPS spokesperson said, as calls to those locations could range from mischief, to well-being checks, to assaults.

But according to data supplied by a Winnipeg Transit spokesperson, there were 41 calls to 311 regarding people sleeping in bus shelters or debris in them in November 2020. That number increased to 45 in December 2020, and there have been 44 of those calls throughout the first two weeks of January.

Coun. Matt Allard is actively discussing the situation around Winnipeg Transit bus shelters with the other members of the Transit Advisory Committee, he said. (John Einarson/CBC)

Bus drivers who see someone sleeping in a Transit shelter notify the Winnipeg Transit control centre, so Transit inspectors, and possibly emergency personnel, can respond, the spokesperson said.

When it comes to cleanliness, drug use and any other inappropriate behaviour occurring in a bus shelter, Transit inspectors will approach the people in the shelter, inform them of available resources and shelters that are open, and contact emergency responders if needed, the spokesperson said.

The WPS also does not have any policy relating to people experiencing homelessness who are using illegal drugs, the spokesperson said. 

“The laws pertaining to illicit drug use are not governed by WPS policy, but rather by the Criminal Code of Canada. Therefore the possession and use of illegal drugs in any public place is considered a Criminal Code violation,” they said.

Transit inspectors aren’t looking the other way; they’re simply doing their job, Allard said, adding that inspectors must report any illegal activity to police.

“We certainly want to acknowledge that it’s a problem and that we are looking into it. I’m also talking to my colleagues about it,” he said.

A discarded needle is seen at a Winnipeg Transit shelter Friday. The WPS does not have a policy for people experiencing homelessness using illegal drugs. Anybody using illegal drugs is violating the Criminal Code of Canada, the spokesperson said. (John Einarson/CBC)

Allard wants to see more action taken by the Manitoba government to address the root causes of homelessness. What the city is seeing in bus shelters now is “the latest symptom,” because there were issues prior to the pandemic with bus shelters, he said.

“I think what’s happened is that the issue has now escalated and we have a lot more of it.”

End Homelessness Winnipeg says more safe, affordable housing would play a significant role.

“There is an unprecedented level of capacity among overnight shelters and safe spaces, partly due to the alternative isolation accommodation spaces that have been created in response to COVID-19,” the agency told CBC News in a statement.

“However, emergency shelters and safe spaces cannot meet everyone’s needs nor are they a sustainable long-term solution. Housing options are required.”