Despite his dirty fingernails and mild boozy smell, Don is an old-fashioned gentleman.
He insists "ladies first" when stepping onto a busy downtown city bus and then allows diminutive street outreach worker Kristy Rebenchuk to duck under his arm, out of her seat and off the bus before him when they arrive.
When a reporter drops a pen on the floor of the Salvation Army lobby, Don reaches for it instantly.
"There you go, ma'am," he says.
And when a belligerent young Main Street sniffer starts trying to pick through garbage bags of clothes Don's brother is trying to organize, Don gently gestures the young man away.
"Please, please," Don says to the young sniffer. "Let him finish his job."
Don's regular perch is on the rocks in front of Mountain Equipment Co-op on Portage Avenue, which also happens to be one of Rebenchuk's frequent haunts. She is the new homeless outreach worker hired by the Downtown BIZ, part of the agency's latest attempt to tackle the homelessness epidemic downtown.
That epidemic has been in the news -- again -- recently thanks to new revelations from the inquest into the death of Brian Sinclair, the wheelchair-bound man who died after waiting 34 hours for emergency care at Health Sciences Centre. Sinclair, 45, had abused solvents, been homeless at times and lost his legs to frostbite after being found frozen to a wall for hours one frigid February day in 2007.
Then there are the homeless Hall bothers -- Wilson and Faron.
Wilson Hall died in April after years on the street and was buried in an pauper's grave without his family finding out about his death for months. Faron Hall, dubbed the "homeless hero" after rescuing two people from drowning in the Red River, has suffered frequent reversals, most recently landing back in jail for being intoxicated in the Richardson Building downtown.
Those are the names we know.
There are an estimated 2,000 people rotating through the city's shelters and crisis centres, and that doesn't include those who eschew such places and live entirely outdoors. There is no reliable count of Winnipeg's homeless.
To combat the problem that plagues downtown, there have been widely hailed projects such as the transformation of the Bell Hotel into a "housing first" hub where homes and help are offered to people with addictions and mental-health issues. And the long list of social agencies -- the Mount Carmel Clinic, the Main Street Project, the Lighthouse Mission, the Siloam Mission, the Salvation Army -- all do excellent work, but they are overwhelmed by the endless task and immediate needs.
In a city in the midst of an affordable-housing crisis, with an aboriginal population marginalized by generations of poverty and destructive government policies and a homeless problem we often sidestep instead of solve, it's not clear much is working, especially judging by the shambolic scene on Main Street on a warm Wednesday afternoon this week. There, a small tent city popped up behind Thunderbird House and dozens of the city's most desperate people congregated. Many huffed solvents. One passed out in front of the Bell after trying to wolf-whistle up to a friend. One wisp of a woman appeared to have wet herself and was crouched on the sidewalk. Many sat in the shade outside the Siloam Mission, waiting.
That's why the Downtown BIZ is trying something different.
Meet people on their own turf
Rebenchuk, who has worked internationally and in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, is the first of what the BIZ hopes will eventually be a team of eight outreach workers who spend most of their day on the downtown's main drags. Called the Community Homelessness Assistance Team, or CHAT, they will try to link people to the many social services downtown and help transition people into proper housing.
The trick, said Rebenchuk, is meeting the people on their own turf, on their own terms, accepting them as they are, not as people might wish they were. And it means being around so often that, when the moment comes someone is ready for help, she's there to offer it.
"Their trust in people is really so damaged," said Rebenchuk. "So many people have said 'I've got your back' and they've been so let down."
To start, Rebenchuk is focusing on the area north and south of Portage Avenue, in part because she is still just one person and in part because North Main already has a significant cluster of services.
Trouble is, even though help -- a housing counsellor, a shelter bed, some addiction services -- might be steps away, a significant number of homeless people don't access them. They might be barred from shelters because of their drinking or rowdiness. They might be trying to avoid bad influences. They might not have the confidence to march into an office or have a bus ticket to get there. And there are very few, if any, outreach workers who spend time on the streets.
"I don't want to be in the middle of somebody's office," said Don as he rode the bus with Rebenchuk.
The northern Ontario native has been on the streets, like his brother, Francis, for much of the summer -- Francis because social assistance would no longer pay for a place at the Salvation Army and Don because he got evicted. They are wary of staying at the Main Street Project because they fear catching body lice and only bunk there if they've been picked up and dropped off at the drunk tank.
Don, who is a residential school survivor, is waiting for his second compensation payment, and hopes to set up a money-management plan for it.
"Last time, I spent it, like 'whoosh,' " he said.
Don and Francis spent last winter sleeping in a makeshift camp along the river. A fire would get them busted, so they kept warm under blankets. In the winter, some homeless people sleep in stairwells and parkades or in the nooks of the pedway system.
Helped 7 get off the streets
Thanks to years of work by the "red shirts" -- the BIZ's ambassadors who walk the streets -- Rebenchuk has a list of 50 chronic cases, mostly men who are caught in a cycle of homelessness, panhandling and intoxication that frequently lands them in the Main Street Project's drunk tank. She's begun trying to make contact with all of them.
Already, after four months on the job, she's helped seven people get off the streets and back to their home reserve, into accommodations with family or into some kind of transitional housing or a detox program. There might be backsliding. It might take several tries and new plans with local social service agencies, but it's a start.
Except for the occasional drunk who tries to lean in for a kiss, Rebenchuk says she has never been threatened or felt unsafe.
"There's this perception of them as dangerous when they are more often the victims of crime than the perpetrators," said Rebenchuk.
She wears very casual clothes, her hair tied back under a ball cap, and doesn't walk around with folders and notepads, which look too official and are intimidating.
Squatting down to chat with Don and his friends outside Mountain Equipment Co-op, she asks really basic questions: Do you have some place to stay? Have you eaten today? Do you have a worker? Do you get social assistance? Do you have a bank account for your welfare cheques? Did you go to that doctor's appointment? How was that meeting with the housing co-ordinator?
She tries gently to get to the bottom of vague, evasive answers, and focuses on one immediate step that might make a difference. In Don's case, it's getting to a doctor's office to get a note that will allow him to begin detox at the Main Street Project. Rebenchuk and Don make a date to meet at noon the next day to take the bus together.
Meanwhile, one of Don's friends wants to get home to his reserve in the Interlake, where he believes his band will put him on social assistance, but he dodges Rebenchuk's attempts to help him find a ride home or contact his band office. She gives him her card.
"Keep that, OK?" she says. She'll see him again, and try again.