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The helpers

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Those who help…

Four nights a week, the outreach worker clambers down the snowy side of a dark bridge and asks Mark to come inside.

And four nights a week, 29-year-old Mark declines, saying he’d rather crash on the dry dirt under a Main Street bridge than take a bed at a crowded local shelter.

For Eric Schweig, a Resource Assistance for Youth outreach worker, it’s a tale of two Winnipegs: the world of hot chocolate and indoor heating versus a life he calls "a little more feral," where the next meal is a mystery and a pile of blankets is the only insulation against cold that can kill.

There’s only one lonely set of snowy footprints snaking down the side of the bridge until the outreach workers arrive. Mark won’t come out tonight.

"There’s no miracles," said Schweig, out tonight with Cam McGregor, another RAY outreach worker, to hand out supplies like knit blankets and granola bars to street-involved youth and adults in Broadway, the West End and the North End.  "For some people just getting a bite to eat and not going through the bins is success."

The duo say the number of clients they deal with decreases by about 70 per cent during severe winter weather.

However, they say there are still people like Mark who choose to stay on the streets.

Mark may or may not have mental health issues, with his eyes bugging out of his head and an odd smile stretched across this face, even in this stinging -24 C weather that leaves the face smarting and the lungs burning.

His responses, too, are short and often contradictory.

Asked why he chooses to stay outside, he replies simply of his four-blanket pile: "It’s warmer under here."

He doesn’t like to be around other people, and tells Schweig and McGregor he’s colder sleeping inside than he is outdoors.  McGregor, who specializes in mental health outreach, says there’s no quick fix.

Asked about how a mentally ill person with no fixed address can access health care, McGregor says the pickings of local clinics are slim.

"It sucks for us and for them because we can’t give them the services they need when they’re out on the street," he said. Among the five to 30 people Schweig and McGregor estimate they encounter each winter night, most can be persuaded to go to a shelter eventually.  But Mark’s been outside for at least a month.

Their job description doesn’t mean forcibly removing people like Mark from their makeshift homes, they say.

"All you can do is talk and keep making them aware of the weather," said Schweig, who’s outfitted in a neoprene face mask for protection from the cold. "We’re sort of the last gas station for the next 1,000 miles."

Schweig and McGregor – who share their joking, light-hearted manner with clients – say they find it’s "really rare" to encounter street-involved people who resist shelters.

But there are bout six Parr Street sex workers out by 8 p.m., teen girls with downcast eyes and hooded ski jackets, and two Osborne Street bus shelters with men camped inside for warmth.

Mostly, both McGregor and Schweig fear finding a client who’s died on them from hypothermia.

That fear intensifies the chill.

"It’s colder next to somebody who going to sleep (in the cold) rather than walking past somebody who’ll be going inside," said Schweig.

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