Winnipeg’s inner city in state of crisis, more funding needed with grassroots leadership: report

Winnipeg’s inner city is in crisis mode, according to advocates who say poverty, safety concerns and crumbling infrastructure are all to blame.

While there have been efforts made to rehabilitate the area, a new report says “more profound transformation is needed to achieve genuine social and economic justice.”

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released the report, State of the Inner City 2024: Visioning a Just Transformation in Winnipeg’s Inner City, on Tuesday morning.

“It’s in crisis mode. The poverty, trauma is now so visible it can’t be ignored and it’s escalating,” the report’s lead researcher, Sarah Cooper, told CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.

Buildings and roads of a downtown
The poverty rate in the inner city being almost twice as high as the city average — about 25 per cent compared with 13 per cent, according to the CCPA report. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The report urges renewed investment in the social, economic and physical infrastructure, as was done from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

“There was federal investment, provincial investment, municipal investment, all of which helped to generate a network of community organizations through the inner city” said Cooper, an assistant professor city planning at the University of Manitoba and a member of the Right to Housing Coalition.

However, that funding has lagged over the past decade, exacerbated by cuts to provincial spending on social support “and it’s really starting to show,” she added.

“People are not able to meet their basic needs. They’re lacking housing, they’re lacking food, health care, all of those things, and  that that’s really something that needs to change,” Cooper said.

“I think a lot of people have noticed that there’s been increased visible homelessness, there’s increased addictions, a lack of safety, overdoses, all of that kind of thing.”

Some of the numbers are a little bit shocking, she said, pointing to the poverty rate in the inner city being almost twice as high as the city average — about 25 per cent compared with 13 per cent.

A pink highlighted area on a map of Winnipeg
Map of Winnipeg’s inner city. (Google Maps)

“And that might be a low estimate because those numbers come from the 2021 census, which looked at 2020, which was of course during the pandemic when the poverty rate was actually cut in half across Canada because of the benefits that the government paid out,” she said.

“But since then, those benefits have disappeared, and so estimates of poverty are probably even higher.”

Government help, not government meddling

There are two main calls to action from the report. One is more government funding, the other is for governments to otherwise stay behind the curtain.

Decisions about how and where the funding should go need to be made by a committee of inner city, Indigenous and other community leaders, Cooper said.

“There’s a level of trust there that there isn’t necessarily with an abstract higher level of government,” she said.

Government programs are often beyond the comprehension of people simply trying to deal with their day-to-day lives. Community organizations help them navigate those complicated bureaucratic systems and the related paperwork, she said.

Government approaches are top-down, she said, the solutions often weakened before they reach people who need them.

“Any decisions for the inner city really need to be based on leadership from those inner city communities and organizations” at the grassroots level, Cooper said.

For instance, the concentrated poverty of the inner city requires a different approach than what might work in other areas of the city, she said.

A messy bus shack is seen in winter, the glass frosted.
Bus shelters in Winnipeg have become makeshift homes for many, year round. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Another unique aspect of the inner city is that about one in five people identify as Indigenous, compared with just over one in 10 elsewhere in the city.

“The inner city is really an Indigenous space. It’s an Indigenous community, and Indigenous people’s distinct rights, including the right to self-determination, have not always been addressed by governments,” Cooper said.

“A large chunk of the challenges that are in the inner city are a direct result of colonialism, of residential schools, of governance that’s been imposed. Those will only be addressed when governments — Canadian governments — get out of the way and Indigenous people of the community are able to make decisions for themselves.”

Careful attention to process — how change will happen — is required to make transformation possible in the inner city. That is attention that can only be paid by those on the ground and in it, Cooper said.

“That’s why the call is for having this roundtable, having this leadership from the community, direct governments — to give advice to governments about how to do the investment, how to do the programming, what kinds of changes are needed,” she said.

“The communities know what they need but it’s a matter of making that happen in a way that hasn’t happened previously.”