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Taking it to the streets

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It's noon near the heart of Portage and Main, and a bunch of do-gooders is meeting once again.

I'm not one of them. In fact, I've come to confess I'm leaving town for a new job, months before they complete an ambitious plan to end homelessness in Winnipeg.

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It's too bad because I've grown to like and respect this eclectic bunch, ranging from the wealthy and influential to the poor and street-savvy.

They didn't ask to be here; they were recruited by members of the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council -- another volunteer group with a quixotic mission.

What they share is a desire to make their community better.

On this day, they are lucky. They have already digested stuff about data management and discharge policies. But now they are listening to Jojo Sutherland, an outreach worker with the Native Women's Transition Centre.

"I don't spend any time in the office," the soft-spoken woman begins, slowly and precisely describing the people she helps. "I go out on the street, I find them, and help them. They don't come to me.

"They have no self-worth. They're people, they have hearts, they have souls. But they don't feel worthy," she says.

"They come to the big city of Winnipeg where they think they'll be safe, where they think they'll find help. And where do they end up? On Main Street.

"It's amazing work. They are amazing people," Sutherland says.

"When you talk to them, and you offer to help them, it lifts their soul. You can see this.

"I ask 'What is your hope?' and they say 'To have a home.' "

It's a quiet room and her words resonate with folks like the WRHA's charismatic Real Cloutier, the passionate At Home/Chez Soi co-ordinator Lucille Bruce, the vivacious Ma Mawi Chi Itata Centre's Diane Roussin, the gruff and kind Siloam Mission's Floyd Perras, the articulate SEED executive director Cindy Coker, the high-energy MMP architect Michael Robertson. All eyes are on the outreach worker with the salt-and-pepper hair.

"There's a lot of things we can change for these people," Sutherland tells the do-gooders.

Yes there are. And change is coming.

Within a few months, thanks to these folks and many more, Winnipeg will have a plan, with measurable recommendations and targets and the drive to see them through.

Many Canadian cities, from Red Deer to Toronto, have successfully reduced homelessness through similar task forces. Within three years, Lethbridge's homeless population dropped 51 per cent. Edmonton saw a 21 per cent decrease in its first two years. Calgary's has dropped 11.4 per cent.

They all report an easing in other pressure points, too, such as hospital stays, emergency-room visits, police interactions and days in jail. Systemic silos are being torn down and the social network is wider and stronger for it.

Generally, these 10-year plans take about a year to create, based on a lot of community consultation. Successful task forces have commandeered the top echelons in government and hard-working volunteers representing the private and public sector.

Ours is led by Coker and Rob Johnston, the regional president for Royal Bank of Canada. They are not flashy people. They are competent and compassionate and determined to do what's right for Winnipeg in as inclusive and effective way possible.

But all that inclusivity can be incredibly frustrating.

It takes negotiation, consultation, debate -- precious time most of these volunteers don't have.

Those in the trenches can be hostile; what do these do-gooders know about anything?

Those at the top can be indifferent, like the top city official assigned to the task force who never comes to the meetings.

And then there's the biggest spongiest block of all: sheer inertia. The more you learn about the issue, the more insurmountable it becomes. Root causes of homelessness range from mental health and addictions to generations of poverty and abuse. Where do you start? Who knows? No wonder it's easier to build another shelter, stock up the food bank, add another line to the soup kitchen.

So it's remarkable that 10 months into this time-consuming and thankless task, this dozen-plus do-gooders have stuck it out. They now know so much more about the city's housing stock, shelter network, emergency wards, CFS policies, EIA funds, landlord and tenant rights, addiction programs and mental health services.

And they know why they must complete their task.

On this day, when the road ahead seems particularly long, the do-gooders listen to Jojo Sutherland and nod.

Change will come soon, though never soon enough.

And when I tell them I'm leaving, they send me off with best wishes and a few hugs. And carry on.

Margo Goodhand is the former editor of the Free Press who hopes Winnipeggers will support the Downtown BIZ's CEO Sleepout Sept. 26 at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 $sourceSection0

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