A wave of vandalism to bus shelters and difficulty getting replacement glass means some Winnipeg Transit users could be left unprotected as cold weather starts blowing in.
For some, that will be an uncomfortable inconvenience, but for others it could mean the difference between life and death, said Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.
“The biggest worry is that people are are going to die because they don’t feel that they’re safe in other places, and they will stay outside rather than go to where they don’t feel safe,” she said.
Groups that work around homelessness say many people choose transit shelters because they’re afraid of catching COVID-19 or experiencing violence in a crowded homeless shelters, or have a cartload of belongings they aren’t allowed to bring in.
Others have addictions that prevent them from being accepted at a shelter, or are looking for place that offers a bit of privacy, but is still public enough to feel safe.
“What will people do? We will have to see,” said Kehler. “But what the bus shelter situation demonstrates is that no matter what, people want to practise their autonomy.”
City of Winnipeg spokesperson Alissa Clark said there has been an “unusually high rate of bus shelter vandalism” this year, affecting more than a third of the shelters across the city.
In the majority of cases, glass walls have been shattered, leaving many shelters as metal frames with nothing to block the wind.
“Because of the sheer number of replacement glass panes we have been required to order … and ongoing supply chain issues, our supplier is having difficulty fulfilling our orders in a timely manner,” Clark said in an email to CBC News.
Transit users with the luxury of choice will likely take their cars rather than stand in the cold for a bus, “which is not a good decision for our city and for our environment,” Kehler said.
But many other riders are low-income people for whom buses are the main mode of transportation.
“They’re stuck. They are actually going to be cold [and] that just makes their life that much more difficult,” she said.
“It’s not fair that they are made to suffer more as the colder weather comes in.”
Winnipeg Transit has 880 shelters. Of those, 298 were vandalized this year — 78 heated and 220 unheated.
“Transit’s repair team is on the street every day, completing repairs as quickly as possible,” Clark wrote.
“Currently we have 51 heated shelters needing glass repairs. Some of these shelters require more than one pane of glass repaired or replaced.”
In a typical year, the city spends approximately $150,000 on vandalism related to bus shelters. So far this year, the cost is in excess of $362,500.
“A rough estimate of repair costs to year end if this level of vandalism keeps up is another $230,000,” said Winnipeg Transit spokesperson Megan Benedictson.
Benedictson said crews are prioritizing repairs to those shelters on highly used routes first, and aim to repair all by year’s end “depending on future damage volumes.”
Kehler blames an overall lack of investment in public transit for the situation the city is in now.
“If this was a priority those repairs would [have been done already]. This is not a new situation. This isn’t just this past year — there are always transit shelters that need repair for any number of different reasons, and they’re just behind.”
Kehler is aware some people blame those living in the shelters for causing the damage, but she doubts that’s the case.
“Why would you vandalize what’s providing you shelter? I don’t believe they’re the ones doing the damage, but I can’t prove that in any way, shape or form,” she said.
But she’s worried the situation will spark ill will that was kindled earlier this year when a city councillor proposed partially dismantling two bus shelters on Regent Avenue, over concerns about people living and abusing substances in them.
After opposition from advocates for the city’s homeless population, Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason backed off that idea, saying he would instead support longer-term approaches, and city council didn’t move forward with the plan.
“I’m very concerned about the rhetoric of some of the politicians around this issue,” Kehler said.
“We don’t support this idea that there are somehow legitimate bus shelter users and illegitimate ones. It’s a shelter and people need to be able to use it for shelter.”
Kehler is calling on the city to implement its cold weather strategy — offering warming spaces in libraries and other civic facilities — sooner this winter than it normally does.
“They need to … not wait for it to be –40 C but to actually be prepared at all times to kind of step in. Yes, it’s going to cost the city money because they’re going to have to pay staff … to be there,” she said.
“But this is the cost that we have to face because we have not done what we needed to do to address homelessness. Do we want them freezing to death in our bus shelters? No, we do not, so we [should] provide as many alternatives as necessary.”