Millennium Library opens community space


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Al Wiebe visited the Millennium Library to escape frightful weather — and, at times, his own thoughts — while experiencing homelessness for more than two years.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/04/2022 (337 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Al Wiebe visited the Millennium Library to escape frightful weather — and, at times, his own thoughts — while experiencing homelessness for more than two years.

“I used the library for shelter, plus… to keep my mind active, I’d come in here to read… to get out of the trauma of everyday life. The way I’d escape was by reading,” Wiebe told the Free Press.

Now an advocate for unsheltered Winnipeggers, he supports a new community connections space at the library, which he expects will help others find permanent homes sooner.

“It will provide help to those people to help reduce their time on the streets, help reduce poverty and make those people’s lives better,” said Wiebe, during a news conference to mark the site’s opening Monday.

The new community connections space is designed to offer social supports to vulnerable library patrons such as food, shelter/housing and social assistance benefits, as well as mental health and addiction services. It will be staffed by municipal community crisis workers and library staff, while the city has also approached outreach groups who could offer additional services.

“If this (community space) would have been here before, it would have helped me because I would have used it. I was too proud… to seek help on my own but if I walked in that door and there was something right there, I would have done it,” said Wiebe.

Left anxious and depressed after losing a well-paying job in November 2009, Wiebe said he wound up on the street about four months later. He jumped off a bridge and ended up in hospital before finally connecting with the supports he needed years later to find a permanent home.

He’s now set to help train the staff at the library connections space, which he hopes will provide others a quicker, safer path forward.

The $236,000 community connections space was supported by $177,000 in federal funding, with operating costs covered through Winnipeg’s existing community services budget.

It marks a major shift in how the city intends to keep the library safe.

In 2019, the city heightened security at the Millennium Library through airport-style measures, with bag checks and metal detectors.

While those measures were meant to reduce the incidents of intoxication, substance use and violent behaviour, they were condemned by many community advocates, who accused the city of over-policing citizens and deterring vulnerable people from using the building.

That intense criticism led the city to reassess the measures, especially once the pandemic forced libraries to shut down in March 2020, said Cindy Fernandes, the city’s director of community services.

The screenings officially stopped during the pandemic.

“There were lessons learned when the screening was introduced. We didn’t do enough consultation with our community. So we needed to take that step back,” said Fernandes.

The new space offers a washroom, coffee, snacks, meeting area, phone, computer and device-charging stations. A glass-enclosed space will eventually allow private discussions but awaits material that will complete its ceiling due to supply chain delays, said Fernandes.

A member of Millennium for All, which staged multiple protests against the airport-style security, said the new space marks a “tremendous” step forward.

“It’s taking the job away from security and policing and instead building this welcome community space,” said Joe Curnow.

However, Curnow urged the city to boost its staffing level to expand the hours of the community connections site and the rest of the library.

The new space will be open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, with no weekend hours. The library itself is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, as well as 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, with no Sunday hours.

Curnow noted city libraries have suffered from a high staff vacancy rate during the pandemic, which reached about 29 per cent in July 2021.

“This community space is beautiful but the city isn’t yet providing the funding to sustain it,” she said.

Millennium for All is also calling on the city to devote more operating funds for the new site and continue training new staff through a “community host training program.” That pilot project provides broad training for security guards, which includes education on trauma-related crises and harm reduction.

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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