‘We can’t give up’: Winnipeg’s homelessness problem no easy fix for those on front lines

Experts are calling for a systemic overhaul if Winnipeg wants a fighting chance at overcoming its struggles with homeless people living — and dying — on city streets.

Marion Willis of St. Boniface Street Links says the issue is rooted in addiction and a lack of treatment options.

“The drug epidemic has seen so many people lose absolutely everything — it’s people who had jobs, that had assets, that had connection to family, (but) have absolutely lost everything and have spiralled down into homelessness,” she said.

“These are people who are deep, deep into addiction.”

There needs to be a strategy, Willis said, that incorporates not only prevention, but also treatment, enforcement and harm reduction as well.

It’s the type of support an organization like hers, which works to end homelessness and poverty and prevent crime through social development, is able to provide on an individual basis.

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“You need to have a dedicated team like we do that will actually wrap ourselves around the individual and say, ‘You want out of this? We have an out.

“‘We’ve got 12 rooms over at the La Salle Hotel that are transitional rooms. How about you come with us, we’ll set you up there, and we’re going to do all the work right now.’”

Read more: Winnipeg mayoral candidates address city’s homelessness crisis

Jason Whitford of End Homelessness Winnipeg says the city is in desperate need of more treatment facilities, as well as low-barrier housing options.

“The commitments are not there, the resources are not there,” he said.

“We need to find other ways, and right now, we’re facing a housing shortage — a housing crisis. The shelters are at or near capacity, and we have a high number of individuals who are unsheltered but we’re not offering them any other alternative.”

Whitford says all three levels of government need to pull together to address the issue.

Snow falling Thursday was a sign that a harsh Winnipeg winter is on the horizon — an especially concerning time of year for the city’s unhoused population.

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“We have our work cut out for us working with emergency services, working with the City of Winnipeg, working with the province,” he said.

“We need to keep people safe, but we still need to focus on the long-term goal, which is housing people and not letting people die on the streets.”

The N’Dinawemak warming space.
The N’Dinawemak warming space. End Homelessness Winnipeg

Whitford said the creation of N’Dinawemak, a 24-hour, Indigenous-led shelter on the Disraeli Freeway, has been a positive addition to the community.

“To me, it’s a best practice — it’s something that can evolve and improve, and it provided a safe place,” he said.

“Based on last year we had one of the harshest winters that we had in decades…. We had one or two individuals that died due to exposure — but the previous year I think there was more than 20.

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“So there are solutions and I think we need to strategize and work together. We can’t give up.”

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