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Hope for the homeless

Warehousing approach to homelessness hasn't worked, but providing a permanent home might

The decades-long battle to end poverty and homelessness has been a war without end. But now, long-term plans to end homelessness are taking hold in Winnipeg and other Canadian cities, with a focus on providing permanent residences to those who need it most.

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It was 2 a.m. when Alden Wiebe stood on the Assiniboine Park Bridge in the fall of 2010.

The former ad salesman had spent the previous six months living in the back seat of a car on McPhillips Street. He was on the wrong side of 50, with no home, no prospects and all the money he could scrounge was from loose change that falls from drive-thru windows.

So Wiebe, who struggled with severe depression for the last two decades, was down to one last hope: that the notorious undertow of the Assiniboine River would do its job.

"I had no desire to live another day," he said.

This is what it had come to; a man who just a year before was making upwards of $75,000 a year selling advertising in trade magazines was contemplating his own suicide. The car he now lived in was sitting in a dealership lot. He woke up at 7 a.m., before staff arrived, and kept himself occupied until dark, when they had left.

He washed himself in bathrooms of nearby fast food joints. His belongings were one bag of clothes.

Wiebe had been too proud to ask for financial assistance from anyone, friends or family. But he tried on more than one occasion to seek psychiatric treatment at the Health Sciences Centre. He was rejected, he said, three times. "They just thought I was there for shelter or something," Wiebe said.

It’s estimated there are some 2,000 homeless in Winnipeg. Wiebe was just one of them. The majority live downtown; cycling between shelters, jails, hospitals and psychiatric wards. Many stay at places like Siloam Mission, the Main Street Project and the Salvation Army.

And, frankly, the despair and frustration surrounding homelessness isn’t confined to the homeless. Seated in a board room at the Salvation Army’s Booth Centre, residential coordinator Mark Stewart has this message for a reporter.

"I would like you to tell people what a terrible job we’re doing," Stewart said. "We’re just warehousing people. Why don’t you shame us already. Something drastic has to happen for somebody to say we’re doing something."

Make no mistake. Stewart isn’t critical of the staff in shelters who work tirelessly on the front lines. "We’re doing the best work with the parameters we have," he said.

But for so long, the "crisis" mode of dealing with the homeless wears down even the most hardened. Or naive.

"It’s just so overwhelming, the tide of the stories of people who have been hurt or damaged; broken people that keep coming to you," offered Joel Comrie, just 25, who over a year ago walked away from his civil service job to run the Lighthouse Mission on Main Street. "How do you possibly pour out enough love and compassion to help? Fortunately, there’s a lot of missions in the area. But it’s a never ending job. That can be exhausting at times."

After all, the decades-long battle to end poverty and homelessness has been a war without end. The casualties mount. Only last November, a 55-year-old man, Byron McKay, was found dead in an alley behind the United Way building. It’s believed McKay, who had been in and out of downtown shelters for several years, died of exposure.

The symbolism of a homeless man dying in an alley behind the very organization — the United Way — which over a year ago struck a task force to end homelessness in Winnipeg, is self-evident. But it’s certainly not news for the minders of Main Street.

"This isn’t a new trend," Stewart said. "People die. It sucks. It’s terrible that someone would die on the street alone. (But) It’s a fact of life down here. You see potential death in front of you."

Back on the Assiniboine Bridge, Alden Wiebe saw death in front of him, too.

"When you lose hope," he recalled, "it’s so easy to give in. You lose pride. Self-worth is a big deal."

So he jumped.

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