The strategy for reducing homelessness in Winnipeg is not moving fast enough for most people, particularly for those sleeping outdoors and eating at soup kitchens, but at least it is moving in the right direction.
The hiring of an outreach worker by the Downtown Business Improvement Zone is the latest initiative, one that has been used by other cities successfully.
The Downtown Biz plans to hire eventually eight such workers, who will work the streets to identify people who need help, rather than waiting for them to knock on the door of a social agency asking for assistance.
The problem with the current approach is that many poverty-stricken people aren't actively seeking help from official sources, either because they don't trust the system, aren't aware of what's available, or because they have addiction issues they wrongly believe disqualify them from assistance. Others may have mental-health challenges that prevent them from making rational choices.
The role of the outreach worker -- and hopefully others will be added soon -- is to get a better understanding of the people who are eking out a miserable existence on the street. It doesn't mean each individual contacted will automatically receive help, but those who are lost in a haze of despair and addiction will at least have a front-line advocate on the street.
Currently, the Downtown Biz's street patrols and police are not equipped with the knowledge, time or training to deal immediately with people in crisis. Their jobs tend to revolve around getting the indigent off the street and into the drunk tank, jail or an emergency ward, where their social needs are not adequately addressed.
If a homeless person is not causing problems, which most of them are not, then they tend to be ignored and continue their way of life until it does become an issue.
The Housing First strategy, which provides a home to the destitute as a first step toward rehabilitation, has been a great success, but there still aren't enough resources and housing units for the needy. This has to become a greater priority if the three levels of government are serious about meeting their obligations. Outreach workers, for example, won't be much good if they don't have anything to offer those who want to change their lives.
Cities such as Calgary and Edmonton have had greater success in the last few years in reducing their homelessness problem because they have made it a priority. The province and city must do the same if they want to eliminate this stain on the conscience of the community.