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This article was published 21/5/2009 (2928 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WINNIPEG — After years of sniping from left-wing critics that it has done too little to fight poverty, the Doer government fired back Thursday with a new "comprehensive" strategy that brought kudos from social agencies and business leaders alike.
The province announced it has earmarked $212 million in new funding this year for bricks-and-mortar projects, as well as programming for low-income Manitobans.
It also signalled a change in how it deals with people with mental-health issues and addictions, placing greater emphasis on housing. The "housing first" approach means the government will try to put a roof over a person's head before offering other supports.
"We understand that on a cold night in Manitoba, 550 people will rely on emergency shelters. That's a disgrace. That's unworthy of this great province and we have to do better," Family Services and Housing Minister Gord Mackintosh told a press conference Thursday.
He said there are some 124,000 low-income people in the province, while 40 per cent of Manitobans "are telling us that they feel they are only one or two paycheques away from poverty themselves."
Manitobans can expect a flurry of government announcements in the next several months on housing, jobs and income support, healthy living, child care and improved ways of accessing benefits and services as a result of the new strategy. Some will involve new programs while others will be expansions of current initiatives.
Finance Minister Greg Selinger, who attended the press conference along with Healthy Living Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross and several backbench NDP MLAs, vowed the government will develop measuring sticks so it can tell whether its new programs are working.
Mackintosh said Manitoba is the first province in Western Canada to introduce such a comprehensive poverty-reduction strategy.
But the Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted several provinces in Eastern Canada have already rolled out their own programs.
Shauna MacKinnon said although the Doer government has made strides in fighting poverty since coming to power in 1999, it has not done as much as many in the left had hoped.
"We feel that it's not been top of the agenda," she said, adding she is pleased the province has now adopted a more comprehensive plan.
Representatives of several agencies who attended the provincial government's announcement at the Crossways in Common (Young United Church) said they liked what they heard on Thursday.
Brian Bechtel, executive director of Main Street Project Inc., said the government's "housing first" model represents a "huge philosophical change" in approach and is "in keeping with what is really cutting-edge thinking in North America."
He said every jurisdiction that has gone this route has saved on fire, police, ambulance and health-care costs while giving people better lives.
"Dealing with an addiction is a hard thing to do at the best of times. Trying to do it while living on the street is all but impossible," Bechtel said.
Every month, Samir Butt is forced to decide how much of his meagre provincial disability benefits to spend on housing or food.
However, he and hundreds of other Manitobans with mental-health issues are in line for some relief after the provincial government announced a program where 600 people will get a rent subsidy of up to $200 more per month.
"This sure would help," Butt said on Thursday.
"I haven't had new clothes for years. I go to the thrift store. I have no savings in the bank and I have no money for school. I have no money for anything.
"We really need this. Right now, I'm just barely surviving."
Mackintosh and Irvin-Ross announced the portable-housing benefit as part of an overall strategy to help the homeless and people with mental-health challenges.
The benefit, announced as a pilot project in last year's budget, will also see housing supports by eight workers in communities across the province. Butt said he currently receives $770 a month from the province and from that he spends $479 for a small one-bedroom apartment. That leaves him with $291.
"That has to pay for everything from food to cable to the phone, clothing and medications, except for antidepressants. It doesn't leave much to survive on."
Chris Summerville, executive director of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and chief executive officer of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, said he's pleased with the announcement, but added more has to be done to fully meet the mental-health needs in Manitoba.
"The goal should be to apply it to everyone. Eventually, it should be applied to all people with mental-health issues."
Giving Manitoba's poor
a better place to live
THE first concrete initiatives from the province's new anti-poverty strategy revolve around housing.
Up to 2,000 people are to benefit from 285 more "mental-health housing units." They will include options ranging from independent living with supports to 24-hour supportive-housing units. Included are 40 units in downtown Winnipeg, with supports, for people who are chronically homeless.
Six hundred low-income Manitobans with mental challenges and an unstable housing situation will receive a rent subsidy of up to $200 a month to access a broader range of private housing. Support workers will be available to help them.
Manitoba Housing's Community Wellness Initiative will be expanded to 14 sites from the current five. Some 760 tenants will receive enhanced services with the addition of 11 housing and mental-health support workers.
The province is adding 100 emergency homeless shelter beds and introducing new emergency homeless shelter standards. The guidelines are to ensure quality, consistent and safe services are provided at Manitoba's five emergency shelters.
A new cold-weather shelter protocol to serve an additional 80 people.
The province will hold a homeless prevention summit this fall.