Community members help Winnipeg’s homeless in extreme cold

WINNIPEG — As the extreme cold continues to pose a serious safety risk for those without permanent shelter in Winnipeg, community members are doing what they can to help.

David Harper goes around the city to assist those without a home every winter. 

But the onset of this week’s frigid temperatures spurred him to do even even more. 

“The shelters are full. All the places we need to take these people, they’re full,” said Harper, a community organizer and former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief. 

“You see for a fact these people are really cold and they will not survive throughout the night.”

Earlier this week, one of the first nights the extreme cold gripped the city, Harper went around with his partner to provide warm beverages and coffee to homeless individuals trying to keep warm in bus shelters. 

After seeing first-hand what the conditions were like for some, he knew he needed to take more action.

“This girl was the one laying there,” said Harper, describing his experience entering a bus shelter. “She took her jacket off and she didn’t even have pants on.”

“That really did something to us and I said we have to go out every night.”

And he has, aided by members of his church community, Encounter Life Fellowship, where Marty McLean is a pastor.

McLean prompted Harper to make a public Facebook post, asking the local Winnipeg community to provide donations or help in any way that they can. 

The post received thousands of shares and the donations came flooding in. 

“We just quickly mobilized and really, it was an overnight thing,” said McLean. “Let’s get the food, let’s get the supplies, let’s get what we need together.”

Harper, McLean and other community members are now going out every single night to help those in need, handing out warm clothes, sleeping bags and warm meals, among other items. 

They’ve received donations from across the province and other provinces like Ontario and Quebec. Through a partnership with a downtown hotel, the group was able to secure rooms for some without permanent shelter.

Pandemic restrictions mean shelters can take in fewer people than normal.

“The malls are closed, fast food restaurants are closed,” said Jay Ward, community facilitator for 1JustCity’s west end resource centre. “All the places that people might have gone to warm up in the past.”

“In addition, a lot of organizations just like 1JustCity have had to reduce capacity or, in some cases, stop letting people inside the building at all,” said Ward. 

Other organizations, like the Mama Bear Clan, are also doing what they can.

“We take out everything we can,” said Grace Akerstream, coordinator for the Mama Bear Clan. “Jackets, blankets, boots. We just try to provide all the basic needs for our people who are living on the streets right now. “

Akerstream says the recent cold snap has helped bring smaller organizations together to help the city’s most vulnerable, pointing to the warming tents set up by Thunderbird House. 

But she says more resources are needed to continue to address the issue of homelessness in the city.

“These organizations are run solely on donations,” said Akerstream, “If you’re looking to help, start by donating.”

“Whether it be a blanket or anything. Someone can always use it.”  

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