‘It means we’re not freezing’: 15 people out of extreme cold, into Winnipeg hotel, thanks to church group

Jeremy Duck fishes out a handful of candy bars and a Coca Cola from a small vending machine in a hotel lobby. This is his second night here. Before that, he was sleeping in a bus shelter at Confusion Corner.

Now he, and 14 other people who were previously living outside, are staying at a downtown Winnipeg hotel thanks to a small church group.

“I thought it was a little overwhelming for a group of strangers to offer that,” said Duck.

Deidra Spence, who’s also staying at the hotel, chimes in.

“It’s nice to know people are out there who care.”

Deidra Spence and Jeremy Duck are staying at a hotel for five nights thanks to donations from Manitoba and other provinces. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Members of the Encounter Life Fellowship in Winnipeg are going out every night during this February cold snap to hand out food, blankets and winter gear to people experiencing homelessness. And for people who need immediate help, they’re relocating them to hotel rooms.

For Duck and Spence, that means no longer having to sleep in bus shelters, stairwells or bank entrances.

“It means quite a bit,” said Duck. “It means we’re not freezing.”

Rooms, meals paid for through donations

Former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper has been handing out resources to people experiencing homelessness for years. Last month, he said he found a girl on a bus bench without pants on.

“That bothered me throughout the night. I knew there was a cold spell coming in starting this week, so we had to do something.”

Now, he and about one dozen other members of his church meet in the CF Polo Park parking lot every night. They drive in a caravan to different sections of Winnipeg. They hand out blankets, winter gear and hot meals. On Tuesday night, they gave out around 70 packed meals of hot turkey soup, chili, homemade bannock, cookies and water.

Marty McLean and his family cooked and prepared more than 70 servings of turkey soup and chili Tuesday night for people living outside. (Submitted by Marty McLean)

They also picked up a handful of folks to bring to the hotel. 

Harper said the rooms and meals are paid for in full for five nights, thanks to donations that have come from Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Once they’re checked in, the group calls the COVID hotline to make sure their guests can get tested for the virus.

Open up community centres, heat bus shelters: AMC

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is concerned about First Nations people living outside in this weather. Especially after a man visiting Winnipeg from Tadoule Lake was found dead in St. Boniface last weekend. The man’s family says he may have been outside for hours without a jacket.

“It is further very troubling to hear that the rate of homelessness in Treaty 1 territory is predominantly First Nations people,” said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas in a press release.

“In these extreme and freezing conditions, it is imperative that these organizations that are funded to address homelessness are ensuring that their services are as inclusive and accessible as possible.”

Dumas suggests the City of Winnipeg puts space heaters in bus shelters, or open up community centres and movie theatres as warming centres.

Former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper started the efforts now being carried out by members of Encounter Life Fellowship. (Darin Morash/CBC)

In a statement, the City of Winnipeg said staff are working with End Homelessness Winnipeg and shelters to find supports for the community.

The bus shelters, it says, are meant for Transit riders.

“Winnipeg Transit’s heated shelters are designed to provide passengers with a more comfortable place to sit with heaters that are mounted under the benches,” manager of corporate communications David Driedger wrote.

“While the heaters aren’t powerful enough to fully heat the shelters like a home furnace would, they aim to take the edge off the cold for our passengers.”

‘These are our relations’

As the night goes on, the caravan of Encounter Life members greet people living outside with smiles, carafes of coffee, sleeping bags and meals.

Marty McLean is from Pinaymootang First Nation and says he feels as though the people he sees living outside are his family members. And he treats them as such.

“We would ask them where they’re from, and some would say Bloodvein, others would say Lake St. Martin.These are communities that we’re connected with. These are people that we know. In the First Nations communities, everyone’s familiar with each other, so it’s like that feeling of family,” he said.

“These are our relations. That’s the strong connection that we felt every time that we went out.”

Back at the downtown Winnipeg hotel, Duck and Spence say they’re not sure what will happen after their five nights are up. Harper said they’ll keep up their efforts until the cold weather breaks. But more help is needed.

“The transitional part — that’s where the missing piece is.”