Warming tents at camp created for homeless Winnipeggers saved lives, says organizer

A camp built to help keep Indigenous people who are homeless in downtown Winnipeg sheltered from brutal temperatures during a recent cold snap saved lives, says one organizer.

The Community Caring Camp, an outdoor site near Thunderbird House on Main Street, was erected by various Indigenous grassroots organizations and dozens of volunteers nearly two weeks ago. It had two teepees and a prospector tent to house people experiencing homelessness who had nowhere to go during February’s brutal cold snap, during which temperatures frequently dropped below –30 C.

The camp was taken down Tuesday. But lead organizer Rylee Nepinak, with the local youth group Anishiative, believes it was vital to hundreds of people while in operation.

“We saved lives, honestly,” said Nepinak, adding that the camp served over 100 people each day.

“Evidence to that was people who were freezing to death prior to this. So I think that’s what we achieved: we saved lives.”

In addition to the pop-up shelter, the camp collected winter clothes that could be given to people.

Ashok Salwan accessed the camp’s services throughout the week. As an Indigenous person experiencing homelessness in downtown Winnipeg, he says one of the toughest things is “feeling like there are no Native men that actually really have what it takes to actually stand with us, and not against us.”

“That’s one of the worst things.”

Salwan said the main thing he appreciated about the Community Caring Camp was that it was a safe space where First Nations people were helping other First Nations people, without judgment, simply because they made the commitment.

Lessons learned

In addition to providing shelter, organizers received an outpouring of donations from individuals and families, companies and Indigenous organizations, said Nepinak. About 90 per cent of the donations were given away.

Ensuring a team of at least five volunteers were on site around the clock was a struggle, however.

“We’re going to miss doing this.… We want to come back more sustainably year-round,” said Nepinak. “But honestly, we’re finally getting some sleep, because a lot of our volunteers have been working tirelessly day and night to ensure that this camp ran 24/7.”

Nepinak says he has received calls from Saskatchewan about running a similar camp there.

The Community Caring Camp had teams of at least five volunteers on-site around the clock. The camp served over 100 people each day, said Nepinak. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

One of the challenges in establishing and running the camp was a lack of planning. The camp was set up quickly because it was needed right away, Nepinak said. In the future, he said organizers would want to plan such a camp months ahead of time to avoid burnout.

“When you get burnt out, you’re not going to get the quality of work that you want, and it could affect what you want to achieve.”

Over the last two weeks, Nepinak learned that people who are homeless, recovering from addictions or suffering from mental health issues need a lot of support and human contact, he said.

Oftentimes they just need someone to look out for them, such as making sure they eat or bundle up when it’s cold, he said.

Long-term solutions needed

Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg and a member of the Thunderbird House board of directors, also says the camp was a success, and there will be a debrief to learn what did and didn’t work in case another camp is needed in the future.

But Johnston notes more long-term solutions are needed.

“It’s a huge challenge and there’s no easy solution,” he said, adding that the proposed Village Project, which would see 22 mini homes placed near Thunderbird House, is one such long-term solution.

Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg and Thunderbird House board member, says more long-term solutions are needed, despite the success of the Community Caring Camp. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

The homes would be repurposed shipping containers that measure from 200 to 250 square feet, designated for Indigenous people at risk of homelessness, Point Douglas Coun. Vivian Santos said via Twitter last Friday.

The Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg would choose who lives in the units and administer the program, Santos told CBC News in an interview last week.

Johnston said Indigenous grassroots organizations need funding in order to develop other long-term solutions.

“We’re dependent on governments for funding. We’re dependent on foundations, private sector donors,” he said.

“Then the Indigenous people, because of some reason — discrimination — we don’t often get some of the money, or we’re in competition with non-Indigenous organizations.

“We’re living in a system that we don’t control, but we want to try and work with these people.”