Street census shows depth of homeless crisis
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Louise Wood’s life involves a relentless struggle.
She lives it one task at a time: find food, find shelter, find warmth — repeat.
The 41-year-old Oji-Cree woman lives in an encampment in Winnipeg’s Spence neighbourhood, and while she has grown accustomed to the harsh reality of street life, it wasn’t always this way. Until last summer, Wood had never been homeless.
“When my mother died June 3, that’s when I first became homeless,” she said, speaking outside Thrive Community Support Circle, a Spence Street resource centre, Wednesday evening.
“It was hard at first, but I learned about the street. I learned about my friends, where they are, where they go eat. I didn’t know anything about that before.”
According to a new report, Wood has two things in common with the vast majority of Winnipeg’s homeless population: she is Indigenous and a former client of Child and Family Services.
On Wednesday, End Homelessness Winnipeg and the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg released the Winnipeg Street Census 2022, the culmination of a survey of more than 1,250 homeless people.
Conducted with the help of 200 volunteers and staff over a 24-hour period in May, the study includes data from emergency, domestic violence and youth shelters, transitional housing sites, bottle depots and community agencies. Surveyors also canvassed more than 100 kilometres of city streets to provide a snapshot of life on Winnipeg streets.
Numerous organizations participated, including the Manitoba Métis Federation, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and City of Winnipeg.
“These data are a stark reminder of the depth of the problem of homelessness in Winnipeg,” its introduction reads. “While this survey provides only an incomplete count of the total unsheltered population in Winnipeg, it offers important information about their experiences.”
Sixty-eight per cent of respondents identified as Indigenous, with nearly nine out of 10 staying in unsheltered locations (such as vacant buildings and encampments). By contrast, the study found Indigenous people are less likely to access shelter resources, with non-Indigenous people representing nearly half of the occupants in emergency and transitional shelters.
When youth in the care of Child and Family Services reach their 18th birthday, most lose financial support and access to support workers and resources. Half of the respondents were former CFS clients, and most identified aging-out and a lack of money as the cause of their homelessness, the study says.
The report reflects Wood’s experience. She spent much of her youth in and out of the child welfare system, ultimately finding herself without access to support when she aged out, she said.
“People are aging out into homelessness, they are aging out into the criminal justice system… even though we see it every day, it was still quite staggering,” said Cora Morgan, First Nations family advocate.
“Manitoba is always a lead in the country when it comes to child poverty, so we can’t expect more, but we deserve more.”
The provincial and federal governments have done little to intervene in Winnipeg’s homeless crisis, Morgan said, leading to outcomes that — as revealed in the report — have barely improved in nearly a decade.
This year’s report is the third time stakeholders have employed a street census to assess the scope of homelessness in Winnipeg, with the first survey held in 2015.
An interim study was conducted in 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented extensive research and so its findings were based on administrative data.
While the latest accounting is more complete, researchers estimate for every homeless person, three others have no long-term housing security and nowhere to turn, something they call “hidden homelessness.”
If this ratio holds true, Winnipeg’s homeless population could include an additional 4,000 people who were not counted in the survey.
“The main takeaway here is that between 2015 and 2022, which was when the first and second street census report launched, we have seen very little positive change… We know that pathways into homelessness are systemic. Until we change the broken systems around us, we will continue seeing the same results,” said Kate Kehler, executive director at the Social Planning Council.
The pandemic aggravated the problem, something the staff at Thrive Support Circle know firsthand.
The resource centre has had 10,000 more people seek services each year of the pandemic. Staff who once served 30 people per day, now see up to 250, said executive director Rhonda Elias-Penner.
Government financial supports that were abundant in the early days of the pandemic have since dried up, but the demand for community resources continues to rise. Non-profit organizations are barely surviving. For its part, Thrive is heading into the final financial quarter with a $50,000 deficit, she said.
The street census culminates in a series of recommendations, including: increasing the local supply of affordable housing; reducing barriers to financial and rent assistance; increasing supports to youth who age out of child welfare; and improving educational outcomes.
“My hope is that the information in the report is taken seriously by officials and that it will lead to renewed investment and political will to end homelessness in Winnipeg,” said Josh Brandon, the Social Planning Council member who acted as the report’s lead consultant. “For too long as a community, we’ve been complacent about homelessness.”
Updated on Wednesday, November 9, 2022 7:52 PM CST: updates Thrive Community Support Circle address