West End drop-in site opens on weekends as pandemic closes many Winnipeg warming spots

A drop-in site in Winnipeg’s West End is opening its doors on weekends for the first time, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions mean most places people usually go to get out of the cold aren’t options right now.

“We’re finding that our people just have no place to go on the weekends,” said Josh Ward, a community facilitator at 1JustCity’s St. Matthews Maryland Community Ministry location.

The community ministry has been serving people on most weekdays for 40 years, but is now opening its doors two extra days a week so people can find a place to warm up or grab a bite to eat.

“People are wandering the streets all weekend. And even on a reasonably warm day like this, [if] you spend all day out pacing around the street, you’re going to get cold and hungry,” Ward said on Saturday.

The West End site, at the corner of St. Matthews Avenue and Maryland Street, will now be open from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on weekends until at least the end of May, but Ward said he hopes that can be extended.

People gather outside 1JustCity’s West End location to get some food or warm clothes. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The site also gives people a way to stay in touch with each other, he said.

“It’s just about giving people a chance to be together. We have all experienced, whether you’re living on the street or not, the loneliness that COVID can bring,” he said.

“A lot of the people we work with are living through social isolation at the best of times, and that’s 10 times worse now.”

The site typically sees between 100 and 150 people a day and is capped at 10 people inside at a time, Ward said provincial staff told him that’s well below the maximum allowed occupancy under pandemic restrictions, which allow shelters to offer services but limit their capacity.

The drop-in site also has physical barriers bought during the pandemic that workers can bring out to allow a few more people to safely sit inside, he said.

And while it’s important to be able to give people food and temporary shelter, Ward said the pandemic has made it hard for the community organization to offer most of its programming.

1JustCity says many people experiencing homelessness or unstable housing situations aren’t able to warm up in public places like they used to before the pandemic. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

“I hate to say it, but in some ways COVID has robbed the soul out of what we do here, because we are about providing the basic needs, but we really aim to provide services that are more transformative,” he said.

“Services that build people up, services that help people develop an identity that’s based on pride and who they are and what they can do.”

In the meantime, 1JustCity is focused on what it can do safely during the pandemic. Starting Monday, that will include incorporating Indigenous teachings around a warming fire outside the West End location that’s been set up on weekdays, Ward said.

1JustCity’s St. Matthews Maryland Community Ministry drop-in location is also open every weekday except Wednesdays. People who need a drop-in site on Wednesdays can instead visit 1JustCity sites at West Broadway Community Services, on Broadway at Furby Street, and Oak Table at Augustine United Church in Osborne Village, Ward said.

Need for affordable housing

Across the province, many homeless shelters are at capacity, says Josh Brandon, the policy analyst and community organizer for the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

He says some people are moving into outdoor camps rather than staying in shelters during the pandemic.

“People experiencing homelessness, many of them are choosing not to use the shelter system because they don’t necessarily feel safe there. It’s very difficult to socially distance in shelters,” Brandon says.

The pandemic is further highlighting the need for affordable housing.

“There are thousands of families that were on the waiting list for affordable housing, even before the pandemic, and that’s only grown in recent months,” he said.

“We really need to ramp that up.”