Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Main Street Project offers food, shelter and compassion, without judging

'Last Resort Resort'

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It's a dark, lung-searing -42 C February morning, but a crowd of people has already gathered outside a downtown building just off Main Street. One man wears a hoodie with no jacket, clutching a copy of a Maxim magazine and smelling like solvent.

A woman in her 30s, with tired eyes, a windbreaker and sneakers, dreams of taking a hot bath.

A grimacing fellow with no front teeth bounds across the road on crutches to join them,

despite a partial vision impairment and the

obvious icy pavement.

They're all looking forward to the only warm

welcome they can count on in Winnipeg

at this time of day.

Welcome to what's known as

"The Last Resort Resort."

Welcome to the Main Street Project.

AT 7 a.m., the doors open at the Martha Street drop in-centre. The blue floor mats from the overnight shelter have been replaced by tables and chairs for the daytime. Coffee, cups of soup and day-old doughnuts are snapped up by the dozens of homeless people coming in from the cold.

The Main Street Project is the only shelter and drop-in centre downtown that will take people if they're intoxicated.

"They have nowhere else to go," says Leigh Anne Caron, manager of transition services. "If you turn them away, what are they going to do?"

The smell of solvent abuse and unwashed bodies lingers in the air, but, aside from some slurred speech and raucous laughter, the atmosphere is cheerful.

The street people thaw out, have a snack, play cards and watch television. This morning, it's a Tom Cruise film, Mission Impossible; fitting for a place where the list of clients and their needs is growing while resources required to run the place are not.

The Main Street Project is a 24-hour crisis centre, with a drop-in centre during the day, an emergency shelter at night, a van that patrols after midnight to make sure no one freezes to death and a round-the-clock "drunk tank" -- the Intoxicated Persons Detention Unit.

At the other end of the building, the Project is helping people who want to get sober and turn their lives around. The 10-day detox unit for men and women has 25 beds in two dorm rooms and a common area. Those who make it through detox can move into the adjacent Mainstay -- a 28-room transitional housing facility for people who need a safe place to stay until they can get into rehab or more permanent housing.

Sometimes people move on. Sometimes they end up back at the crisis centre. Caron says they're not there to judge.

"People make change when they're ready to make change. It's our job to give them a safe place to come where they know they'll be OK," she says, as the bare-bones staff buzzes people in to the crisis centre and helps others get on their way.

"Do you have any snowpants for me and my sister?" asks one woman, ready to head back out in the cold. People spend the day going from the shelter to soup kitchen to shelter, picking up cigarette butts along the way.

The Main Street Project is home for many.

At the drop-in centre, a man asks for deodorant and waits his turn to use the shower.

It's a mailing address for others, and a place that will help them with medical appointments and banking so people like pensioners can deposit their cheques.

"We've seen a lot of people get jumped for their money," says Caron.

Often, though, the services they provide aren't in anyone's job description.

"The staff really do go the extra mile," says Caron. This morning, it's daytime shift co-ordinator, Mike Spence.

The former paramedic knows Marvin (not his real name), the partially blind fellow on crutches. The regular at the drop-in centre has a wounded foot. Spence offers to take a look at it. He dons surgical gloves and removes the dirty old bandage. The big purple welt appears to be healing. Spence cleans the wound and applies a fresh bandage. Marvin smiles, pulls on his sock and boot and heads out the door to the streets he calls home.

Spence says that he, like most people, wanted to change the world when he started working at Main Street Project. "I thought it would be challenging and different." He hasn't been disappointed.

The volunteer board member says he's given up on trying to change the world. Spence is content to make a difference when he can, and there are plenty of opportunities at Main Street Project.

"A lot of people get sent here who no one else will take," says Caron, recalling a client in his late 50s with obsessive compulsive disorder and incontinence.

"He was very anxious and soiling himself a lot, but people loved him because he was a really lovable guy. He needed someone to take care of him." And the staff did.

"People are compassionate," Caron says. "Otherwise they wouldn't be here."

For 25-year-old crisis worker Christie-Lee, getting to know the clients at Main Street Project is the biggest perk of the job she's been doing for three years.

"I used to work at a golf course with millionaires and people who had everything they wanted," says the woman who didn't want to give her last name.

"These are more interesting people."

It's not easy finding the right people for the job, says evening shift co-ordinator Bob Shelfontuck, who's worked at Main Street Project for 21 years.

"We do anything and everything -- from mopping up urine, to treating bloody cuts to putting up with verbal and physical abuse," he says. Workers start at $11-something an hour, work shifts and require a lot of patience, he says.

"But as corny as it sounds, it just takes one moment when you see a client succeed," says Shelfontuck. He recalls a woman who sobered up and left the street for two years. She got her own apartment and enjoyed playing bingo. She won a $200 jackpot and it was the most money she'd ever had.

The former homeless woman wanted to buy some new linens. Shelfontuck, who took her to Wal-Mart on his day off, will never forget the look of wonder on her face when she walked in the door and saw all the things she could buy for the first time in her life. He gets choked up thinking about it. Her story, like many he's known, doesn't have a happy ending.

An old boyfriend from her drinking days hounded her at home and at bingo. "She was trying to maintain her sobriety, and he'd come over pissed," says Shelfontuck. She started drinking again and ended up back on the streets.

"When they're trying to get clean, everyone's pulling them down," says Shelfontuck.

"Misery loves company," says Susan, a member of the transition team trying to help clients in recovery move on with their lives. Susan, who didn't want her last name used, has seen people go through detox a number of times and relapse.

She's learned to never give up hope.

Clarence is the client who keeps her going. The man in his late 40s has been through detox many times, stayed sober for several weeks and then gone back to using. Clarence knew the Main Street Project would give him another chance, and that knowledge likely saved his life.

A year ago, he returned to the Martha Street building for the umpteenth time, so sick he was almost dead, says Susan. He went into detox. Nine months later, he's still sober and preparing to finish high school.

"Hopefully, the future is his," she beams. "He's my shining pride."

For 27-year-old Patrick Flett, it's his first time in the 10-day detox program at the Project. He's hoping it's his last and that he'll stay sober for life. He has a goal.

"I want to raise my boy," says Flett, who has a one-year-old son.

Doug Belanger has a son, too. The 53-year-old hasn't seen him since he went on a bender six years ago and moved to Winnipeg.

"I have no excuses," says the well-dressed, well-spoken Belanger, warming up at the Main Street Project drop-in centre. He says he took a buyout package from Shell Canada when he lived in Sarnia, Ont., in 2000 and started binge drinking. He's had periods of sobriety that have lasted up to a year, then feels sorry for himself and hits the bottle. "I'm the problem, not the alcohol."

Joseph Tulloch is sober and hopes he can stay that way until he can get into a 60-day treatment program. "I need to clean up my act," says the 33-year-old. He grew up on Main Street because he felt it was safer than going home to his alcoholic mother.

Tulloch's been offered a $20-an-hour construction job in the Interlake by one of the supporters of a nearby church mission. It's his big break and he has no intention of blowing it.

But adopting a whole new way of life isn't easy, says Main Street Project occupational therapist Mike Johnson.

"A lot of them have faced a lot of trauma. They don't want to be there, but they don't know how to get out." He's helping street people learn life skills and healthier forms of recreation so they can experience a sober, happy lifestyle. They've gone bowling, on nature walks, cooked, learned budgeting, played Scrabble and cards.

"It almost blows their minds that they're having so much fun," says Thompson, who hopes funding for his Opportunities Ahead program will be renewed when it runs out in March.

The key is to give people who've been told they're worthless the opportunities to be successful in a sober world.

"You don't want to see them," says transition team member Susan "But if you do get to know them well, these are amazing people. They're strong and resilient."

And, sometimes, poetic. Benny Mayseewaypetung is a poet whose work will be published this spring. He's lived on the streets for as long as anyone can remember, says Collin Sundell, a former drinking buddy who is now clean and a volunteer and relief worker at Main Street Project.

Sundell is helping to organize a May 1 comedy night fundraiser for Main Street Project at the Burton Cummings Theatre. Mayseewaypetung will be there signing copies of his book of poems, written mainly about the family he lost during his spiral downward.

"All human beings need to be loved," says Sundell, gesturing to Mayseewaypetung who's settling down for the night in the homeless shelter. "They didn't plan on living this way. None of them says 'I want to grow up to be homeless'."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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