Winnipeg needs policy on using public spaces as shelters in extreme weather: mayoral candidate

A Winnipeg mayoral candidate says if elected, he’ll ensure the city has a formal policy on the use of public buildings as shelters during extreme weather.

Scott Gillingham says Winnipeg is among the few major Canadian cities without a clear formal policy on using public buildings as shelters for vulnerable people during weather events such as the bitter cold and dangerous heat the city experiences.

In a news release Saturday, Gillingham said as mayor he’d have the city’s community services committee review the policies in other Canadian cities, and would have an interim policy in place before the end of this year, with a permanent policy recommended by next May.

Other Prairie cities, including Saskatoon, Regina and Edmonton, have policies in place that spell out how the city will ensure vulnerable people are sheltered in extreme weather.

A September poll from Probe Research suggested Winnipeg voters rank addressing homelessness as a top issue in this year’s civic election. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, Gillingham said, “since crime feeds on the vulnerable on our streets.”

“Homelessness is a test of our compassion as a city,” he said in Saturday’s news release.

He noted the city has worked in the past with End Homelessness Winnipeg on temporary approaches to providing emergency shelter during cold weather. In 2018, the city announced funding for a short-term cold weather strategy

But Gillingham said a permanent strategy is needed “both to help the public and to provide refuge for those with no other options” during extreme weather.

He says underused public buildings could provide a more secure space in those situations than other shelters may offer.

He also noted bus shelters, which have seen a spike in the number of emergency service calls as they’ve been used as living spaces, are not an appropriate option for shelter.

Earlier this year, a city councillor proposed partially dismantling two bus shelters on Regent Avenue over concerns about people living and abusing substances in them.

After opposition from advocates for the city’s homeless population, city council didn’t move forward with the plan.

Gillingham, who is the outgoing councillor for St. James, also promised that if elected he would order a review of the city’s policies for the emergency removal of any homeless encampments, and would have city administration review recent recommendations on the issue from the City of Toronto’s ombudsman.

That report says Toronto had an outdated and inconsistent approach to dealing with homeless people in public parks, and the city needed to develop a detailed plan.

Earlier in the campaign, Gillingham said he would transform six city-owned vacant lots into modular housing units to help people experiencing homelessness.

Several of the other 10 candidates running for mayor have also made campaign promises on homelessness and housing.

In addition to Gillingham, Idris Adelakun, Rana Bokhari, Chris Clacio, Kevin Klein, Shaun Loney, Jenny Motkaluk, Glen Murray, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Rick Shone and Don Woodstock are also on the mayoral ballot.

Advance polls are open now until Oct. 21. Election day is Oct. 26.

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