‘I’m concerned for them’: Neighbours call for more homeless services after Winnipeg encampment fire

Neighbours who live next to a West End homeless encampment destroyed by fire on Sunday say the people living there had a positive impact on the area, but needed help.

“I’m concerned for them, to be honest, first, and then for everybody,” said Franklin Fernando, who lives across the street.

“You have to help people, and this neighbourhood has a lot of those people around [who need] help, and not enough support for them, support systems, you know?”

Emergency crews were called to the encampment on Langside Street, between Sargent Avenue and Cumberland Avenue, just after 6 p.m. Sunday.

The camp formed over the summer on a lot which served as a memorial garden. Some residents struggled with addictions, Fernando said, and would sometimes knock on his door asking for help.

About 10 people were living in the camp at the time of the fire, which engulfed everything in the encampment, scorched nearby trees and melted the siding of an adjacent property. No injuries have been reported.

The aftermath of a fire that took place at an encampment on Langside Street on Sunday. See burned belongings, trees, and tents in snowy park. Photo taken on Mon Nov. 28, 2022. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Crews heard numerous small explosions believed to be from compressed gas cylinders and propane tanks.

Fernando came home Sunday evening to see the camp in flames, and residents lined up on the sidewalk, at least one of whom was using a wheelchair.

He wants to the city to convert vacant buildings into housing to give people in the neighbourhood somewhere to go.

“I believe that you cannot criminalize or judge people who have addictions, you just have to create more support systems for them to be more helpful, so they don’t end up in situations like this.”

‘A caring community’

Jen and Dallas Kornelsen live down the street. They would grow food in the community garden, but Jen said she thought the property would be better used as housing.

A man and a woman are standing next to each other. Behind them, debris can be seen strewn across a property with no house on it.
Jen and Dallas Kornelsen live down the street. They say the people living in the encampment had a positive impact on the neighbourhood. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

“Because there’s such need for housing in our community and affordable housing, so it was kind of ironic, actually, when the camp moved in here. I thought, ‘Oh, good,'” she said.

The camp residents hung pots with flowers, and laid a limestone pathway.

“It seemed like a really caring community actually that had moved in here,” Dallas said.

Outside fires increasing

There are 10 to 15 similar encampments in the city, as well as about 25 smaller individual sites, according to the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.

Since Oct. 30, firefighters responded to 20 fires in encampments.

“I know there’s been a lot of discussion about vacant building fires. Those are still an issue in our community, but those numbers are relatively flat … when we look year over year,” said WFPS chief Christian Schmidt.

“But the fires that are increasing are … the outside fires, garbage fires, these types of things.”

One person died after an explosion in a homeless encampment in February 2021.

For the past 18 months, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service assigned a fire prevention officer to conduct outreach to the encampments. The fire prevention officer had visited the Langside encampment last week in an effort to encourage fire safety, said Daniel McIntyre Coun. Cindy Gilroy.

Staff from Downtown Community Safety Partnership came to the encampment after the fire to help the displaced residents, some of whom declined assistance, according to a City of Winnipeg news release.

Gilroy said the incident shows the need for the provincial government to help.

“This is when we need the province more than ever, because this is when the private market just doesn’t work. We need a government to come forward and say we’re going to house these people.”

A provincial spokesperson said it recently doubled annual funding to shelters and other homeless services to more than $15 million.

It also announced $1.7 million to support N’Dinawemak’s 24/7 shelter.

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