Woman found unresponsive under pile of blankets in Winnipeg bus shelter

Street outreach workers in Winnipeg found an unresponsive woman on the floor of a transit shelter on Monday, as a wave of colder temperatures started hitting the city.

“It’s quite soul destroying for an outreach team to find a body and do chest compressions,” said Marion Willis, executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, an organization that helps connect people with housing, mental health and addictions resources.

“We’re an outreach team and we found what we found and did everything we could.”

The woman was rushed to hospital but Willis believes she was already dead, saying it appeared the woman had been there for some time.

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg said the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service was called to the bus shelter at the corner of Tache Avenue and Goulet Street — a block from St. Boniface Hospital — around 1:45 p.m. They found a person in critical condition and took the person to hospital.

Due to privacy issues, no further details are being provided, the spokesperson said in an email. The spokesperson would not confirm the woman was dead, saying they do not receive updates about a patient’s condition after care is transferred to a hospital.

The Street Links workers first stopped at the shelter during their morning rounds and spoke with a number of people huddled inside.

When the workers made their rounds again in the afternoon, they noticed the shelter was empty except for a pile of blankets, Willis said.

“They went in the transit shelter and pulled back the blankets and there was a person lying face down.”

Marion Willis says there is an urgent need for more shelter space and warming centres in neighbourhoods other than the inner city. (CBC)

They turned her over and administered three shots of Narcan, a medication used to counter decreased breathing in opioid overdoses. There was drug paraphernalia in the transit shelter, but it wasn’t clear if the woman had been using, Willis said.

They called 911 and did chest compressions until emergency crews showed up.

“But it was too late for this person,” she said.

The Winnipeg Police Service said officers were not called, likely because it was not a criminal situation. 

Willis said the woman was not someone the Street Links outreach workers knew.

“At this time of year, just as soon as the weather starts to get colder, there’s a steady migration of people who are living unsheltered crossing over [the river from downtown].”

Some people choose to build encampments and spend the night in transit shelters and ATM vestibules rather than go to an established shelter, said Marion Willis. The shelter pictured is the one where the woman was found on Monday. (Travis Golby/CBC)

They choose to cross the river into St. Boniface, as well as other neighbourhoods, because they feel safer than being in the inner city, Willis said.

“They’re not living in transit shelters but they take up space seeking out warmth. They build encampments. They spend the night in ATM vestibules — any place that they could find shelter,” she said.

For many, no amount of coaxing can persuade them to go to an established shelter, Willis said.

“If you’ve moved over to this side of the river because you’re trying to escape the chaos of the inner city, then you really don’t want to be taken back to that,” she said.

“But people can’t live outside. If you live outside, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not going to make it through the winter. Sadly, that was certainly the case for this person.”

The temperature on Monday afternoon in Winnipeg was about –22 C, with a wind chill of –31, and fell through the day. The entire southern half of the province is now under an extreme cold warning.

Willis said the city responded quickly following the discovery of the woman and opened a makeshift warming shelter in a municipally owned building on St Mary’s Road.

“Our team has been all night making sure there weren’t people in transit shelters and bringing them into a nice warm space being provided for us and that we’ll continue to use throughout the extreme weather,” she said, adding the outreach workers who found the woman are OK but “deeply saddened that it has to be this way.”

“It’s unfortunate it takes a death before any focus on the need for infrastructure on this side of the Red River.”

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