Fires underscore city’s homeless problem: incoming mayor
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As he prepares to be sworn in as Winnipeg mayor, Scott Gillingham received three vivid reminders of the tough job he’s about to take on.
Fire broke out in two vacant buildings and at a homeless encampment near Higgins Avenue. No one was hurt in any of the incidents, but it underscores the danger faced by people who take shelter in unsafe places and start fires to keep warm. It’s going to get worse as winter closes in, and Gillingham knows it.
“I will be speaking with our senior fire officials soon to talk not only about the most recent incidents, but to make sure that all things are in place for the winter to reduce the likelihood of future fires,” he said Monday afternoon.
He plans to appoint a senior adviser on homelessness and addictions, who would be a liaison between his office and support groups and non-profits that help the homeless. He said the position is a high priority.
“It’s such an important matter right now that I’m prioritizing the staff position to it… My goal is to move on this as soon as possible… I want to make sure we get the right person, not just any person,” said Gillingham, who will be sworn in Tuesday.
The Monday morning commute was disrupted by a blaze in a vacant rooming house on Lily Street, next to the Disraeli Freeway. The building was to be demolished because it had sustained so much damage it was at risk of collapsing. The large duplex was the site of a fire in 2018 that displaced several residents. In the second incident, an explosion, believed to be caused by propane tanks, set several tents ablaze in a riverbank encampment near Higgins Avenue Sunday evening. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service used a drone to search the encampment and found no victims. On Sunday morning, a vacant two-storey duplex in the 300 block of Manitoba Avenue caught fire.
Gillingham said he plans to establish an “extreme weather shelter” policy that would make buildings owned by the city readily available as shelters when the temperature drops dangerously low this winter.
“Winter’s coming. It’s going to be cold,” he said. “We have to make sure that people who are right now on the street have a safe and warm place to go in extreme conditions.”
On Monday, Premier Heather Stefanson was asked what her government will do to help the city combat homelessness.
Stefanson, who was at Siloam Mission to announce an increase in funding for emergency shelters and transitional housing, was asked what the province could do about the hundreds of vacant buildings across in Winnipeg.
Stefanson said the issue remains challenging.
“Certainly, we recognize there’s a challenge with that and that’s why we’re here today making these announcements… to offer more shelter capacity within the system, for those particularly as we’re getting into those colder months now, it’s going to be absolutely necessary,” she said. “We don’t want to see people on the streets or in bus shelters. We want to see them in safe shelter places.”
The premier said her government inherited a significant structural, social housing deficit when it took office in 2016.
“We’re continuing to take steps to address those issues,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
— With files from Danielle Da Silva
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, November 1, 2022 9:10 AM CDT: Adds related posts.