McLaren up for overhaul

Rundown hotel to be retrofitted into housing-first model


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The scene inside the once-acclaimed McLaren Hotel is one few would deem a suitable living situation.

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The scene inside the once-acclaimed McLaren Hotel is one few would deem a suitable living situation.

A nauseating scent of stale cigarettes and mould permeate throughout a dated building that’s long been infested with bed bugs and mice. The hotel’s amenities haven’t been updated since its opening in 1911, either — its 150 occupants are left to share 12 toilets, 12 sinks and 12 bathtubs, which double as the only place for them to wash their dishes.

What was once one of the finest hotels in Canada, is now a slum.


McLaren Hotel on 554 Main Street will be doing an interior renovation this summer.

It’s also the site for Winnipeg’s next housing-first model: the McLaren Supportive Housing Initiative.

Equal Housing Initiative will begin a $12-million retrofit of the McLaren Hotel this summer. The property at the corner of Main Street and Rupert Avenue stands as one of the few remaining single-room occupancy hotels in the city, it being the biggest and quite possibly the most visible of the bunch. The building was designated historic in 2020, meaning it can’t be demolished and its exterior structure can’t be changed.

So Rick Lees and his team decided to overhaul the interior instead.

“It’s an ideal property to do this project in,” said Lees, CEO of the Winnipeg-based non-profit.

“We think we stand on some pretty solid platforms of discussions around doing this kind thing to help end homelessness in the city and also deal with addictions, mental health and primary health care that’s sorrily lacking for about 5,000 people who live in these facilities.”

The retrofit will be separated into three stages — two floors at a time — to limit the number of residents that are displaced at once. Lees estimates renovations will take two to three years to complete all six floors.

Lees explained the McLaren is still considered a hotel, which means its tenants do not own the rights to their room and can be evicted at a moment’s notice. The McLaren Supportive Housing Initiative will change that, making each tenant the leaser of their room, paid for by Employment and Income Assistance (EIA), at a rate of $528 per month — a tick above the $450 each resident pays now.


McLaren Hotel amenities haven’t been updated since its opening in 1911, either — its 150 occupants are left to share 12 toilets, 12 sinks and 12 bathtubs, which double as the only place for them to wash their dishes.

Aligning with the housing first model, the initiative will include wrap-around support for each tenant to combat addictions, trauma and mental health issues.

In planning the 24-hour support, Lees piloted the teaching-hospital model — a cost-effective option that sends students in social work, psychology and nursing programs to the McLaren as a part of their practicum placement. The 18-month trial has been a smashing success and will continue, Lees adding there could be a day when there are 20 students from various sectors offering wrap-around support at one time.

Sara Riel, a Winnipeg-based mental health and addictions support organization, jumped on board with the pilot program and currently has a case manager and community mental health worker supporting 130 people on-site each day.

“They’re people that need mental health and addictions support but they also need the community mentorship, just to know how to fill out IDs, how to apply for EIA, how to manage your bedroom, how to keep it clean, just basic living things,” said Tara Brousseau Snider, executive director of Sara Riel.

“I really think this is doing the right thing at the right time for people who need it the most. We have to support our community, we can’t ignore people —through no fault of their own — who are just facing a lot of hardships today.”

Al Wiebe echoed Brousseau Snider’s sentiments. Wiebe, 68, is a lived-experience advocate whose clinical depression went unmedicated for much of his adulthood. Thirteen years ago, he lost his beloved job and the trauma of that experience sent him spiralling.

By his own admission, Wiebe had no work-life balance. His friends were his work colleagues and he was estranged from his family, leaving him alone while falling on hard times. He lived on the streets of Winnipeg for more than two years before making a miraculous recovery.


Renderings for the McLaren Hotel.

“One of the lucky ones, I managed to come through and 10 years later, I’m a national consultant, consulting all three levels of government and training all three levels of government on homeless awareness,” Wiebe said.

“Due to the pandemic, a lot of money has gone into shelters, and that’s not what’s going to reduce homelessness at all. Sure, we need to spend the money to save people’s lives… but at the same time, we aren’t spending enough money on actual housing. We will never reduce homelessness by not adding money to housing. It’s time we need to spend more money on minimal transitional housing and optimal permanent housing.”

Before the idea for the McLaren Supportive Housing Initiative crystallized, Lees conducted an eight-month needs assessment of the building’s tenants, which revealed 32,000 data points on their personal information and health demands. The results from the study became the foundation for the supportive housing model.

A part of the research was an acuity scale around the 16 social determinants of health. The top four concerns it yielded were severe addiction needs, severe mental health needs, severe access to medical access support and severe changes to their living environment.

“We’d just like to have our own showers, toilets and sinks in our own rooms. We’d like to have a communal kitchen on every second floor. We’d like to have a warehouse of food we can access,” Lees said were the requests he heard the most.

Canada’s needs assessment works on a scale of one to four — relating to mental health, one meaning the person is functional and can be on their own, four meaning the person should likely be institutionalized.

The average score of the residents in the McLaren Hotel is 3.5.


Renderings for the McLaren Hotel.

“This is intended to change that,” Lees said. “As much as the physical change of the space is significant, doing that without providing (wrap-around support) would be dysfunctional.”

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.

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