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Easy targets for Thompson's crimes

Homeless often deal with cold, addiction and mental illness

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Two clients at the Homeless Shelter in Thompson.

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Two clients at the Homeless Shelter in Thompson.

THOMPSON -- The middle-aged man lay sprawled out on the grass, his face covered by more than a dozen mosquitoes who were no doubt enjoying their feast. He appeared to be drifting in and out of consciousness, barely aware of the RCMP officer standing over him.

It is a disturbing sight. Unfortunately, it is one that has become all-too common in Thompson.

Homelessness is a major issue in this city of 13,124, which can actually swell to much larger numbers as people from numerous neighbouring communities and First Nations come to the "Hub Of The North" to utilize services that are offered.

Problem is, the ones who are most in need of help seem to be slipping through the cracks.

Take a recent Tuesday night in Thompson, which is when the Mosquito Man was spotted passed out under a tree in the park. He would end up in the drunk tank of the local RCMP detachment, along with more than a dozen other drunks forced to spoon together in the tiny cell until they could sober up.

'For a lot of these individuals, it has been years since they've slept in a bed' -- Paullette Simkins, who runs the local shelter in Thompson

That night, another 24 men and women would be bunched together on mats of the local homeless shelter, the genders separated only by a couch. A handful of others took refuge in a series of tents set up along the riverbank.

And some were seen settling down for the night in stairwells of local businesses.

"For a lot of these individuals, it has been years since they've slept in a bed," said Paullette Simkins, who runs the local shelter and is also employed with the Canadian Mental Health Association. "But people are very resourceful around town."

Simkins said mental illness and addiction are major issues for many of the homeless and transient who find themselves utilizing the shelter. She believes at least 90 per cent of her clients are dealing with one, if not both, issues.

But many are being turned away due to a lack of space. Between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013, a total of 2,770 people seeking shelter were told there was no room. Many of those rejections occurred in winter, when the demand is greatest because of the frigid temperatures.

Thompson RCMP often find themselves in the same boat, unable to accommodate any more people in their holding cells due to a lack of space. The 10-bed psychiatric unit at the local hospital is almost always full. On this Tuesday night, RCMP were forced to drive one disturbed man needing help more than 300 kilometres away to The Pas, where a bed was waiting.

"For a lot of people, it's very hard for them to understand a mental health issue exists," said Simkins.

Last year, key Thompson officials including Simkins comprised a list of the 28 locals who are utilizing emergency services most frequently. Calling it Project Northern Doorway, the idea was to find a way to focus on these high-risk souls with the aim of eventually reducing their strain on the system.

Eight of the people on that list have since died. "I was shocked to hear even one had died," said Thompson Mayor Tim Johnston.

Simkins said the homeless and transient population aren't directly contributing to Thompson's high crime rates, as they are not typically the ones committing offences beyond nuisance complaints.

However, they are at risk to be victimized, such as the homeless man who was brutally beaten last year and is now in a permanent vegetative state in a Winnipeg hospital.

Simkins, Johnston and others hope Northern Doorway can be successful enough and eventually expand to help an even larger group. "We're doing intensive case management," said Simkins. "We'd like to try to get them to get out on their own."

Currently, there is just one homeless outreach "mentor" working these files, but there are plans to hire up to four more in the near future, provided funding comes through.

John Donovan, north region director of the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, said they are beginning to see the fruits of their labour with several emerging success stories of people who've got off the streets, cleaned themselves up and started a new chapter in life. So far, five people on the list have found full-time housing.

Simkins and others are also doing outreach work with other northern communities to help transition some of the people in Thompson back home. She said a handful of frequent clients have actually been banned from their original First Nation because of issues usually linked to addiction. They end up on the streets of Thompson without a place or a purpose.

"We have a section of the population that is economically challenged," admits RCMP Staff Sgt. Ron Corner, who has spent 11 years of his career in Thompson. He's instructed his officers to use as much compassion for those they deal with daily while still enforcing the law as best they can.

"It all comes back to relationship building," said Simkins.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 A6

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