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.
There is a movement sweeping North America that could revolutionize how society deals with the homeless: Give them homes.
In Winnipeg, the seeds of that revolution began with At Home/Chez Soi, founded four years ago, which provided apartments for some 300 Winnipeg homeless with mental illness issues.
Then Siloam Mission refurbished the 85-unit Madison — once a neighbourhood eyesore rooming house — to house homeless men and women from the downtown Mission emergency shelter. And the 42-unit Bell Hotel, after a $5.2 million renovation, opened for business in the summer of 2011 as the city’s first and only "harm reduction" facility — where tenants are not necessarily evicted for drug or alcohol use, a commonplace practice in most shelters or home programs.
It may only be the beginning. Siloam has launched an ambitious plan to build a $30.5-million, 160-housing unit on their Princess Avenue location. And in the next few weeks, the United Way’s task force to End Homelessness in 10 Years, launched over a year ago, will announce a blueprint — in conjunction with all three levels of government — that will have a foundation in the Housing First model.
"There are some bold asks," noted United Way task force co-chair Rob Johnston, the regional president of Royal Bank of Canada in Winnipeg. "We’ve got all the stakeholders who really want change.
"It’s more than hope," Johnston added. "I fully expect the recommendations to be implemented. This is not a report. It’s a road map. It’s meant to change culture."
In fact, other Canadian cities, such as Calgary, are deep into similar plans to end homelessness using the Housing First approach. The success in Calgary — fiscal proof that the cost of housing the homeless is far cheaper than the cost of servicing the homeless — begat the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
Today, seven major Canadian cities have established 10-year plans.
"Plans for the homeless are a dime a dozen," noted Tim Richter, executive director of the Canadian Alliance, based in Calgary. "Plans to end homelessness are new."
The up-front costs aren’t cheap. In Alberta, the annual government funding for Housing First ranges between $40-$45 million. In Manitoba, the renovation costs for the Bell Hotel and Madison apartment complex alone were $5.2 million and $2 million, respectively.
The math is straightforward, however: Emergency shelter for one homeless person costs about $10,000 a year. But system costs (police, hospital, psychiatric wards, ambulance, crime) average another $46,000, according to Richter.
Meanwhile, the overall cost to house the homeless range between $12,000-$18,000 a year.
A study of 72 homeless people in Calgary concluded a savings of $2.5 million annually if they were provided housing.
Overall, it’s estimated 200,000 Canadians will experience homelessness a year, with 30,000 on any given night, and 1.3 million have experienced homelessness in last five years.
The cost: $7 billion a year.
"That’s real money," Richter said. "Even in Alberta."
Further, the philosophical underpinning of any form of Housing First model is to provide permanent residence to those who need it most. Or who place the largest burden on the system.
For example, most estimates break down homeless in three categories: chronic (5-10 per cent), episodic (10-15 per cent) and temporary (80 per cent). Yet it’s the first two categories, the most vulnerable, that account for the vast majority of need and cost.
"These people take up over 50 per cent of emergency shelter space," Richter explained. "We’re cycling people. It’s inefficient to let them bounce aimlessly around the system."
Hence the emergence of facilities such as the Bell Hotel, where there are no prohibitions on alcohol. Residents' rooms are considered private, no different than a home, as long as the activities a) are legal, b) don’t disturb neighbours or c) don’t threaten the well-being of other tenants.
Since opening in 2011, there have been "a few" cases of significant injury, said Bell Hotel program director Michael Foster. Nine residents have been evicted.
"Their street lives do not disappear the moment they walk through the door," Foster said. "The culture remains there. The risks remain there. You work with them where they’re at."
Theoretically, a Bell resident could live in government-funded housing and drink or abuse drugs behind closed doors as much as they wished or could afford. Is that logical in the context of ending homelessness?
"You can go to any apartment complex anywhere in the city and smoke crack all day long," Foster replied. "Eventually, that’s likely going to lead to problems and evictions. The idea isn’t for people to come here and use forever and ever. The idea is give people a stable base, a safe place to be. We’re here to engage them and teach them and give them other options."
There is a support staff available at the Bell for all residents. There are emergency buttons and security cameras on every floor.
A 51-year-old woman named Mary is a typical Bell resident. She’d spent the previous several years bouncing between emergency shelters and jail. In another life, about two decades ago, Mary was raising three kids and working as an outreach counsellor. In her 30s, she found drugs. "I was a late bloomer," she said, wryly. "And I just went wild."
She ran a crack house. She was arrested for assault charges. She lost her children.
Since entering the Bell, Mary has been sober for almost a year. Well, mostly. If you "slip," she said, "you don’t get condemned. You get to learn on your own."
But Mary is alive. She’s not in jail. And for now, at least, she’s found some stability in a life that for two decades has been anything but stable.
"It took me almost a year to realize I had a home," she noted. "I can unpack my stuff and put pictures on the wall. It’s home, to finally have your own shower and bathroom."
There are disputes. There is some friction between those who’ve abused drugs and achohol versus those who with a history of sniffing solvents, for example. But, Mary said, "it’s a community. We’re all in the same boat. We have to learn to get along."
What the Bell does provide, unquestionably, is a level of safety most residents have not known for years.
"Just having these four walls? It’s not a huge space, but for them it’s a huge space," said Foster, standing in one of the sparely furnished units, the size of a small dorm room. "Having a private washroom where they feel entirely safe is huge. I see people cry over just having a washroom.
"Having that place where you can put all those day-to-day pieces at rest and just exhale. Then you can start to think about tomorrow. Until then, you can’t."
Jonah Young, 42, was homeless four years before being accepted at the Bell.
"I was crying I was so happy," Young recalled. "Everything was beautiful. It was like heaven. It was finally a chance for a new start. I didn’t have to worry about where am I going to sleep, where am I going to eat?"
Young, who has had addiction issues for years, still occasionally slips, too. Crack cocaine. "That’s always been my drug of choice," he said, explaining. "It’s getting more stability but it’s taking time. I lived 20 years with an addiction."
Asked where he would like to be two years from now, Young said he’d like to be working. He hopes one day to reconnect with his daughter, who is now 18. He hasn’t been in touch with her in four years. "I’ve been too embarrassed by my lifestyle," he said.
Projects such as the Bell are a hard sell, filled with hard cases. They’re also the most expensive. Yet the Housing First motto is "Action over perfection," according to Richter, who believes "risk management" facilities are designed to offer security to the most vulnerable of homeless.
Similar proposals are expected to be announced in the United Way homeless campaign.
"We really want to drill down to the folks who have just given up hope," said Brian Bechtel, director of the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council at United Way and former executive director of the Main Street Project. "And they’re just circling around the shelters just hanging on. We’ve got to try and reach out to those folks."
"That (treatment for drug or alcohol abuse) should always be Plan A," Bechtel added. "But when you have someone who’s been on the street for 10 years and tried treatment four times, at some point you’ve got to say, ‘This is not working.’ You’ve got to create a different paradigm."
Dr. Jino Distasio, director of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg and a principal investigator for At Home/Chez Soi in Winnipeg, said the key, literally, to any Housing First program is ownership.
"You can just see the weight lifted," he said. "There’s something symbolic about giving someone a key. It’s powerful. You give them control again."
It’s not always pretty, sure. But the alternative, according to Richter, can be much less attractive.
"We’re not willing to accept someone is going to freeze to death in downtown Winnipeg," Richter said, from Calgary.
But someone did, a Winnipeg reporter noted.
"I know," he replied.
When staff at Siloam Mission first began formulating plans for Madison Lodge they feared the worst.
The Madison was already a notorious rooming house, smack dab in Wolseley, that was the plague of the neighbourhood. So administrators at Siloam were leery about how their proposed 85-unit apartment for the homeless would be received.
They set up a community meeting and 50 local residents showed up.
"I was scared to death," conceded Siloam’s executive director Floyd Perras. "Usually if 50 people show up it’s not going to be good."
Instead, the reception was largely supportive. That was a relief to Siloam, which had purchased the old eye-sore building for $300,000 then sunk another $2 million into renovations.
Madison opened in 2011, with the mission statement to provide apartments and support services, such as counseling and employment, for sober homeless recommended from various shelters.
For Perras, the need for support housing will always exist. The reality is that many men and women in homeless shelters will need some form of support for the rest of their lives. This isn’t a Disney movie. It’s a painful and often painstaking process.
The goal is for residents to live to their individual capacity. For some, that might be steady employment, perhaps an eventual move into regular housing. For others, it might be showering at least every other day. Or to stop hoarding. Or staying sober.
In addition, this spring Siloam will be launching a pilot project to include up to eight 17 and 18-year-olds who are "graduating" from Child and Family Services foster care — the source of almost half of Winnipeg’s current homeless population.
Why? "Because," Perras said, "there’s a big gap between a kid who suddenly doesn’t have a family or a home anymore... and then somehow we magically expect them to step up and go get a job."
The hope: To prevent as many teens leaving CFS as possible from falling into the criminal system, sex trade and addiction, only to show up five to 10 years later at the Siloam shelter "when they’ve been beaten down and broken badly."
Siloam has budgeted $150,000 for the pilot project.
Each room at the Madison comes with a bed and a desk. A bathroom is down the hall. Three meals a day are served in the cafeteria on the main floor.
Tenants can stay as long as they wish, provided they follow the rules. Perras believes temporary or transitional housing has a "sabatoge effect" on some clients.
"If you create transition housing, you’re just creating anxiety for the person," he said. "They stay in one place, they build relationships, they get comfortable, then they’re out on their own again."
Which is exactly why Perras recently invoked a policy at the Siloam shelter where any person who stayed in a bed at the Princess Avenue facility the night before has a bed reserved for the following night. That means those homeless are not preoccupied from the moment they get up in the morning with where they might sleep that night.
That simple question most take for granted — where will I sleep tonight? — is at the crux of every derivative of the Housing First model.
One Madison tenant, a 55-year-old named Ken (he didn’t want his last name printed), never gave a second thought to that question until a few years ago, when he left his job at a national retail outlet and couldn’t find another one. Eventually, he ran out of his meager savings and was evicted from his apartment.
On his first night on the street, Ken — who would be mistaken for an accountant or school teacher — wandered around Winnipeg looking for a bus shelter that he thought might be safe. He had about $10 in his pocket.
"To be honest, I thought my life was over," he recalled. "I thought I’d die on the street."
After a couple days fending for himself, Ken swallowed his pride and went to the food kitchen at Siloam. He was provided a cot. Within days, he was offered a place at the Madison.
For someone like Ken, who had not experienced homelessness until his 50s, life on the street can be traumatic. You can hear the fear in his voice when he recounts stories about being confronted at the soup kitchen for being accused of taking someone else’s seat at the dinner table.
Finding a modest sanctuary in a place like the Madison, Ken said, was "like waking up from a bad dream. It wasn’t a mansion but it was better than sleeping in the same room with 100 other guys."
His short-term goals are just as modest; saving enough money from working at a restaurant to purchase his own television set and buy clothes for "all seasons."
Of course, not all tenants at the Madison are as novice as Ken to the streets. Wayne Bryant openly admits he spent most of his adult life sleeping in stairwells and under bridges from Thunder Bay to Vancouver. His father died when Bryant was two years old, his mother passed when he was 15. He began life bitter, then soured even more.
"I didn’t give a damn about anyone, especially myself," he said.
Now in his 50s, Bryant has spent the last 14 months at the Madison. His small room is filled with his own water-colour paintings, almost every one containing a red castle.
"This is my big family," said a man who hasn’t spoken to his own family in over 20 years. "This is a safe zone. I don’t trust myself sometimes to get a place of my own. But maybe someday."
Bryant is just one face of the homeless. His story is his own, but not unique. You could move from apartment to apartment in the Madison and fill a notebook with bad choices, bad luck and horrible, degrading experiences and indignities.
Some of these people never had a chance. Some of them only want one. And some are stark reminders of the emotional and financial fragility that can and does shatter lives every day.
"We’re all five minutes away from something; losing our job, possibly being homeless, losing people in our lives, trauma," noted Lisa Goss, executive director of the Main Street Project. "Things that will happen that will increase our chances of being addicted, that will increase the chances of mental breakdowns."
The man who paints red castles, meanwhile, has his own theory.
"Homeless people have this big hurt, man, and they try to fill it with stuff," Bryant said. "Broken hearts, broken spirits, broken whatever."
Turns out, the undertow didn’t do its job.
Alden Wiebe waited and waited, but eventually floated to shore, sopping wet and stinking of river water.
It’s possible, of course, that Wiebe could have just kept jumping, or found another way out. Instead, he pleaded for help again at the St. Boniface Hospital, where a psychiatric nurse had a sympathetic ear. They soon found him a bed at Victoria, and from there to the Salvation Army shelter, where Wiebe stayed for six months.
Wiebe eventually found his own apartment under the umbrella of the At Home/Chez Soi program.
Today, he lives in a small apartment on Ellice Avenue with a partner named Sherry who he met at the Sally Anne shelter. They have two cats.
In fact, Wiebe spent some time as an outreach volunteer worker for Chez Soi. He’s seen the down side of the program, where tenants will trash homes they’re given or pawn the furniture for drug and alcohol money. But he considers it the cost of doing business in an imperfect system.
"You need a house to move forward," Wiebe noted. "It’s a godsend for a lot of people. Some of our people would be dead if not for Chez Soi."
Wiebe could easily have been one of them. Now the thought of sleeping in a used car dealership lot remains embedded in his psyche.
"I never, ever, ever want to go through that again," he said. "I get shivers just thinking about it."
Naturally, any plan to end any social ill, much less homelessness, will be met with skepticism, even from those within the same community. Said one long-time inner-city advocate: "They won’t end homelessness, but they’ll take a good stab at it."
Perras, too, believes "we’re always going to have a level of homelessness." At the same time, he contends that "bricks and mortar" — support housing — should be a primary focus; not against it because it costs money, not for it because it might save money.
"We need to do it because it’s the right thing to do," he concluded. "That doesn’t mean we’ll have a magic wand. But there’s a level of ‘Let’s keep hammering at this until we make a difference.’ We’ve got to keep pushing. Sometimes you get support, sometimes you get slapped around. But you can’t give up. Our folks have often given up hope by the time they’ve gotten here. So we need to restore hope in their lives. And if we say the best we can hope for is status quo, there’s no hope for anybody."