Manitoba announces $58M to create 700 social housing spaces this year, expand shelter hours

A new homeless strategy called A Place for Everyone will create hundreds of new social housing units and new wrap-around services, the Manitoba government announced Tuesday.

Families Minister Rochelle Squires said the approach focuses on strengthening existing services and helping people find and retain housing by increasing co-ordination within provincial departments and among all levels of government.

“Securing housing for vulnerable people, to ending homelessness, is a very complex issue — one that requires collaboration across all levels of government, stakeholders and communities,” she said at a news conference at the Circle of Life Thunderbird House on Main Street in Winnipeg.

“We recognize people become homeless when they fall between the cracks and we understand that those cracks are largely provincial systems. We can and we must do better.”

The whole-of-government strategy moves toward ending homelessness, rather than just managing it, by enhancing existing systems so service providers can move from being primarily crisis-oriented to focusing on prevention, she said.

The efforts will cost another $58 million, on top of $68 million in previously announced homelessness measures.

A woman with dark glasses and blonde hair pulled up in a bun speaks from behind a microphone. She is wearing a multi-coloured jacket.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires announces A Place for Everyone, a new government strategy that includes plans for hundreds of new social housing units. (Travis Golby/CBC)

To help people transition out of homelessness, 700 new social housing units will be made available this year — 400 added to existing spaces through a rent supplement program to create affordability and another 300 through new construction, Squires said.

The government is also increasing the maintenance budget for existing social housing stock to support the repair of vacant rental units and upgrades to the overall condition.

But housing alone is not enough, so the plan will expand the capacity of service teams to support vulnerable people, Squires said. 

Part of the new funding will also go to emergency shelters to enable them to offer 24/7 operation during winter months, better case management services and programs to support well-being.

The new strategy was developed after meeting last year with more than 400 people and groups across the province, including service providers, Indigenous leaders and people with lived experience, Squires said.

“[They] shared their priorities and recommended approaches for moving forward” in dealing with the root causes of homelessness and the special needs of individuals.

To address one of the gaps frequently raised during the consultations, Squires’ department is creating a “community bridge program.”

It will allow certain community agencies to provide emergency income support to people going through the intake process for employment and income assistance.

“This initiative will both prevent people from entering homelessness when they experience a loss of income and support a more rapid rehousing for people experiencing homelessness,” Squires said.

The new strategy also includes help for youth exiting the child and family services system, to ensure they are better supported “on their journey towards independence and reduce their risk of homelessness,” she said.

Community partners urged the government to not wait on implementing any measures, which is why the province launched a number of initiatives last year as part of the $68 million in funding, Squires said.

Those included:

  • Increasing the basic needs budget for people on employment and income assistance and the index rates for Rent Assist.
  • Providing operating funds for N’Dinawemak, the city’s only Indigenous-operated homeless shelter.
  • Training shelter support workers with critical skills in mental health and addictions, de-escalation techniques and trauma-informed care.
  • Tripling the number of provincial mentors to support and help people transition out of homelessness and increasing salaries to retain them.
  • Providing funds for an overflow space at the homeless shelter in Brandon.

Jason Whitford, CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg, said the new strategy mirrors his agency’s commitments and he looks forward to working with the province to ensure the plan is successful.

“As an Indigenous organization, I think it bodes well that they recognize the importance of reconciliation and Indigenous-led resources in this process,” he said.

An interdepartmental working group will be established to report regularly on the strategy to the poverty reduction committee of cabinet, Squires said.

“This is good news today,” Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said. “No one chooses to be homeless. It’s a result of circumstances and quite often exacerbated by personal challenges like addiction, mental health challenges, abusive living situations or poverty.”

A bald man in glasses, a navy suit and striped tie takes part in a drumming circle. He holds a drum stick while he is flanked by others doing the same.
Mayor Scott Gillingham takes part in a drum circle at Tuesday’s homelessness announcement. (Travis Golby/CBC)

He applauded the efforts to address housing first, as part of the overall equation, because “you cannot effectively treat, for example, someone’s addiction while they are living in a bus shelter.”

That was echoed by John Pollard, president of Home First Winnipeg, who welcomed the increased funding for supportive housing.

“If we’re going to address homelessness, one of the things we have to do is actually have homes for people to move into,” he said.

Gillingham also praised the whole-of-government collaborative approach, saying it’s the most effective way to get anything done.

Leaning on an analogy he said he often uses, Gillingham compared a one-person kayak in the Red River to a dragon boat fuelled by a team.

“We need to be a dragon boat … to tackle this.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

Marion Willis, founder and executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, described her reaction to the announcement as “cautiously optimistic,” but there was little addressing the root causes of homelessness.

“We have yet to see just how those funds will be allocated. I think this was a pretty big blue sky kind of announcement and I’d like to see what the plan looks like,” she said.

A woman in black glasses and bobbed blonde hair, speaks to a camera. She is outside in the winter and wearing a red coat.
Marion Willis of St. Boniface Street Links says she had hoped the announcement would have more about mental health and addictions. (Travis Golby/CBC)

“I maybe expected a little more focus on mental health and addictions and the fact that the demographical face of homelessness is very diverse now. It’s not what it was. It doesn’t divide us by race.”

There was a lot of talk about funding being linked to Indigenous-led groups, she said.

“I just want to be sure that there’s going to be funding for everybody.”

Opposition pans announcement

Manitoba’s New Democrats and Liberals criticized the PC government for taking too long to act on homelessness.

“Manitobans have been calling for solutions to the homelessness crisis for years, but it took an election year for the PCs to pretend to care,” NDP housing critic Nahanni Fontaine said in a statement. 

She said the PCs sold off affordable housing units and reduced Manitoba Housing’s maintenance budget.

“Families need a safe and secure place to live, and the PCs aren’t delivering,” Fontaine said.

Fontaine and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said PC inaction on homelessness dates back to the party’s first year in power, in 2016.

“This is a government that did nothing while people experiencing homelessness slept and froze in bus shelters throughout their entire tenure in government,” Lamont said.

“The premier and PC MLAs were well aware of these issues and had to drive by these bus shelters every day outside the legislature.”