As a front loader and city crew move in on a downtown Winnipeg bus shelter, the people inside the shack leave.
Just hours later they’re back, putting up tarps up and sealing off the doors to the shelter that’s become their home.
That scene played out Wednesday, just a day after a person died after an explosion and fire at a homeless encampment — but it’s become a familiar sight in front of the bus shelter at the University of Winnipeg and others around the city.
“Looking at this tragedy, it really underscores the need for the biggest thing is housing,” said Luke Thiessen, communications manager at Siloam Mission.
For the first time in recent memory, Siloam’s shelter isn’t full and there is no wait-list to get a bed, despite reduced capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions, Thiessen said.
Fewer people are staying at the shelter every night in part, he says, because of new COVID-19 isolation units the province opened for Winnipeggers who are homeless.
While there is some shelter bed availability, people continue to sleep in homeless camps and in bus shelters for myriad reasons, even when the temperature drops to life-threatening lows, says one outreach worker.
“I’m seeing a lot of people fighting the cold, fighting to survive,” said Janis Ducharme, an outreach co-ordinator at the West Central Women’s Resource Centre. “A lot of people getting torn away from the bus shacks.”
Ducharme checks on about 55 people living outside in the cold each day. The requirement to be sober is one reason some of them don’t use homeless shelters, she says, but there are many others.
“A lot of people are banned from these warming spaces. A lot of people have … no way to get down there,” she said. “Women that I come across just don’t feel safe going there. They don’t feel safe around the shelters.”
Winnipeg behind on homelessness: researcher
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report Wednesday that says a city the size of Winnipeg should have at least seven full-time employees dedicated to creating affordable housing.
“Unfortunately, the City of Winnipeg is behind, which is going to just make this a bigger task in the future,” said Stefan Hodges, the researcher who wrote the report. “So we need to step up right away.”
Hodges said Winnipeg currently has only one staff member dedicated to affordable housing, and is the only Canadian city without an affordable housing strategy.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman told reporters he wrote to Manitoba’s premier last week, requesting an urgent meeting to address the issues facing the city’s vulnerable population, especially those experiencing homelessness.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires did get in touch Wednesday, but Bowman says he still hasn’t heard from Brian Pallister.
“On this file, unfortunately, he’s been missing in action,” the mayor said.
“The sense of urgency from the provincial government has not been certainly felt. You know, this is an issue where all levels of government need to really be working together. And as a level of government, we continue to be the last line of defence on issues like housing.”
Asked at a Wednesday news conference to respond to Bowman’s assertion the province hasn’t been helping the city with homelessness, Pallister replied, “I won’t take the bait.”
He pointed instead to initiatives he said his government has taken, including the announcement earlier this month of $468,000 in funding for Main Street Project to support COVID-19 isolation units for people experiencing homelessness.