Out of sight, out of mind The Main Street strip is, for most Winnipeggers, somewhere to lock the doors and drive through, avoiding contact with 'them' on the way to where we live and work
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2020 (820 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
”Imagine waking up cold, thirsty, needing to use the bathroom, hungry, dirt falls off your body as soon as you wake up for another day in society’s world. In the shadows, and already feeling defeated by well-dressed, warm-looking, food-eating, judgmental people who yell as if we don’t have the right to even be alive or are worth a friendly smile.”– Desirae
On many nights, Chris Hauch left the peace and quiet of his suburban apartment, boarded a city bus making its way downtown in fits and starts as exhaust burst from the tailpipe, and stepped into the chaos and clutter of the Main Street strip.
In winter, the wind blew stiff and cold, knocking dead leaves from trees, and the sky looked smudged with soot and ash. In summer, the air was thick with warmth, and winos sat in parks sweating drink under the fading sun.
Life on the strip
The costs of homelessness — both in fiscal resources and human misery — are difficult to fathom. And the problem, which has has plagued Winnipeg for decades, is growing.
In order to better understand the issue, the Free Press spent the past year documenting life on the streets and in the shelters.
The costs of homelessness — both in fiscal resources and human misery — are difficult to fathom. And the problem, which has has plagued Winnipeg for decades, is growing.
In order to better understand the issue, the Free Press spent the past year documenting life on the streets and in the shelters, interviewing advocates, community activists and academics, reviewing research papers, shadowing social-service workers and consulting people with expertise gained through lived experience.
The result is Life on the Strip: A year-long examination of Main Street homelessness.
At the start of each instalment is a quote from Desirae, one of the people profiled in this series. She lives on the streets of Winnipeg in a tent. The quotes are excerpted from an essay she wrote and submitted to the Free Press.
This is chapter two of nine. It looks at homelessness in Winnipeg in the 1970s and 1980s.
See the full series at wfp.to/lifeonthestrip
For eight years, Hauch — then a university student and staff member at the downtown homeless shelter Main Street Project — made the commute, and each time he did, it felt not like travelling from one area of the city to another, but more like flying to Mars and back.
Night after night, he patrolled the strip, offering help to the most distressed and at-risk residents of what was then called skid row.
And it was on one such night in Winnipeg circa 1980, as Hauch found himself surrounded by a group of young men itching for a fight, that he realized he was about to fall victim to the street violence he’d so often seen on display.
“It was right over there as I recall,” says Hauch, 65, standing on the Main Street sidewalk, motioning to the spot, across from the Red Road Lodge (formerly the New Occidental Hotel), where he was attacked 40 years ago.
That night, Hauch walked his usual beat, up and down a Main Street lost to history — past the dozens of bars and rundown hotels that gave the area its infamous reputation; past the sex workers and johns skulking the alleys; past the casual labour shops where residents sought work.
“Back then there was this concentration of chaotic activity. There were all of these bars, and outsiders would come in to drink and cause mayhem,” Hauch says.
“As a regular citizen of Winnipeg, you would drive through and see nothing but chaos, and from that you’d form impressions about how people came to be here. We just naturally assumed if you were here, you were likely an alcoholic or mentally ill.”
While patrolling, Hauch was confronted by the group of men. Right away, he could tell they weren’t “skid-row residents,” but people who had come to the area for a night of vice and bar-hopping.
One of the men struck the first blow, and soon, Hauch was on the ground as kicks and punches rained down on him. Eventually, the beating stopped, and when the dust settled, he realized that a group of people had come to his rescue.
A handful of skid-row men — shabby, down on their luck, possibly penniless — had jumped into the fray, putting their bodies in harm’s way in order to protect his. Their bravery and willingness to help a stranger touched him deeply.
“There was no such thing as just some skid-row wino for me anymore.” – Chris Hauch
When Hauch first began working at the shelter, the young anthropology student at the University of Manitoba was just 20 years old. At the time, he admits he was “scared shitless” — not just of the area, but of the people who called it home.
But that night, as he nursed bruises and battered ribs following the beating, something shifted in his mind, something he calls “the penetration of the sense of ‘other.’” From that moment on, he would never look at Winnipeg’s homeless community the same.
“There was no such thing as just some skid-row wino for me anymore,” Hauch says.
“That was over.”
● ● ●
The Main Street strip, along with the side streets that flow from it, has been a mouldering presence in downtown Winnipeg for nearly a century. While the plot points, set pieces and actors have changed through the years, the underlying social conditions that shape the area remain.
Containing a tiny fraction of the city’s population, its residents have consistently confounded the outside world, from citizens and community groups, to politicians and police, leading to a skewed, often pejorative perception of the people who call the area home.
The strip is not some isolated, distant dominion. It is part of Winnipeg, located smack-dab in the heart of the city, and the abject poverty on display there stands in stark contrast to the prosperous, affluent metropolis surrounding it.
“Despite the efforts of governments, the police, hospitals, and the social service community, skid row remains, in the eyes of non-residents, an immutable blight on the larger world, a squalid place for the indolent and disaffiliated, and tenuous harbour for crime and pestilence,” Hauch wrote in his 1984 master’s thesis, an ethnographic study based on years of research at Main Street Project.
“Most (people) will have only driven through, and from their limited contact, can only comment on the appearances of the men and women entering and exiting taverns, or the children clustered near the doorways of pool halls. Some may have witnessed a brawl from the safety of their cars, or a side trip on a street adjacent to skid row’s main thoroughfare may have resulted in passing by one of the region’s prostitutes.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the Main Street strip was Winnipeg’s chief commercial district, featuring a frenzy of business activity at a time when the burgeoning city was growing from a cluster of homes and warehouses near Portage and Main into what it is today.
But as the city’s footprint expanded, with citizens and businesses migrating away from the former economic hub, the strip went into a period of slow, sustained decline. By the time Hauch arrived on scene in 1976, the area appeared frozen in time.
The buildings were run-down and showed signs of decades of neglect, with some properties outright abandoned. An entire economy around the homeless — dilapidated rooming houses, seedy bars and exploitative casual-labour shops — had blossomed, and the streets were littered with dirt and debris.
No longer was the strip a commercial juggernaut. Instead, it had become a place for the homeless to seek refuge from a hostile world.
The eight years Hauch spent on the strip was an important time for homelessness in Canada. Trends decades in the making were transforming the issue from one primarily affecting older, transient men who lacked social ties, into one that was increasingly complex and pervasive in scope.
Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the federal government invested heavily in affordable housing, and following the 1973 amendment of the National Housing Act, at least 20,000 units of social housing were constructed each year.
But by the 1980s, changes in Canadian society were pushing increasing numbers of people into the streets. Federal spending on low-income housing was nearly cut in half, and by 1995, only 1,000 units of social housing were constructed.
Canada’s affordable housing stock shrank significantly during this time.
“Modern mass homelessness in Canada is primarily the product of federal withdrawal from housing investment,” according to a joint report from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
The ‘80s also saw cuts to social welfare and, at the same time, structural developments in the economy led to a decline in stable, full-time jobs. Meanwhile, the minimum wage failed to keep pace with the rate of inflation, further lowering the purchasing power of scores of Canadians.
All of which conspired to turn homelessness into a mass crisis by the 1990s.
● ● ●
On a day seemingly caught between fall and winter, with the sun high in the sky and a light breeze lending a chill to the air, Hauch walks his old route, retracing the worn steps of his 20s through an area that, despite its flaws, he came to love.
The world around him buzzes with energy and noise. He passes the spot where he was jumped and beaten as a young man. He passes the people lined up at the Lighthouse Mission awaiting a free meal. He passes the old shelter at 594 Main St., where he conducted research for his master’s thesis.
On a side street, Hauch walks past a man in distress, who swears loudly at no one in particular and gesticulates wildly with his arms. As he makes his way down the sidewalk, a mouse scurries across the ground and buries itself below a puff of dying weeds.
From behind black sunglasses, Hauch stares out at his surroundings, recounting tales from his youth, and pointing out where old rooming houses and bars once stood.
“It was so different from what I imagined it would be. I had a very mainstream, common perception of it. I didn’t imagine I would stay here very long, but I did have an interest in urban anthropology, so doing this kind of work appealed to me,” Hauch says.
“Eventually, I came to realize that a great deal of what had been written about the people who lived on skid row was wrong. I had assumed in those material circumstances, with that level of poverty, it would be Hobbes’ war of one against all — and it wasn’t.”
Few seek financial help
The 2018 Winnipeg Street Census found only 21 per cent of respondents were receiving the GST credits they were entitled to, while the majority received no Employment and Income Assistance whatsoever. Ten per cent reported having no income at all, while 12 per cent had income only from sporadic, informal means.
During his time at Main Street Project, Hauch walked on nightly patrols, worked in the emergency drop-in shelter, helped residents fill out tax returns and government paperwork, and did what he could to respond to crises in the community.
His experiences at the shelter formed the backbone of his master’s thesis in anthropology, as well as a follow-up ethnographic study published in 1992.
While working on the strip, Hauch came to realize that behaviours among the homeless that seemed “pathological” to outsiders — be it drinking binges or binge spending — were in fact “adaptational” and motivated by a logic of survival.
Most surprisingly, he discovered that far from being a collection of lazy layabouts, the men and women who called the area home often worked physically demanding jobs in poor conditions for poor pay.
“Eventually, I came to realize that a great deal of what had been written about the people who lived on skid row was wrong.” – Chris Hauch
On a daily basis, people could be seen lined up outside the casual labour offices, often as early as 4 a.m., hoping to be hired on. In the winter, many were poorly dressed and struggled to brace themselves against the morning cold.
The offices favoured hiring the most desperate of applicants because they wouldn’t complain about harsh working conditions, demeaning tasks or low pay. As a rule, the jobs were without long-term prospects, meaning the men and women could do little to build a career.
He also witnessed the practice of binge spending up close, which was common among the homeless in Winnipeg — as it was in skid row settings throughout North America. Traditionally, the practice was seen as purely irrational and representing an inability to plan for the future.
It spoke to the fixation on life-in-the-present that George Orwell noted among the working poor in his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell wrote the one “great redeeming feature of poverty” was it “annihilates the future.”
But Hauch came to suspect there was more to binge spending than met the eye.
“As the study progressed, the ecology of skid row emerged as one so radically different from that of the world surrounding it that differences in behaviour became more understandable,” Hauch wrote in his 1992 report.
There were “eerie similarities” between the economic customs of the homeless and the “generalized reciprocity” present in hunter-gatherer societies — which marks the earliest form of human economic organization, where each member is a producer and no right to private property is recognized.
Among the homeless, this didn’t just manifest in binge spending, but also in gift-giving. Whatever money or goods residents managed to acquire were quickly shared with the wider community — all without the expectation of a “thank you” in return, let alone the repayment of debt.
“It started to look like generalized reciprocity… When resources can’t be stored, they’re distributed, and the integrity of that is what keeps everybody alive.” – Chris Hauch
Rather than the hyper-individualism of “every man for himself” he expected to find, Hauch witnessed “tremendous generosity” among people whose circumstances were so dire they often proved deadly. In other words, abject poverty on the strip didn’t make people crueler, but kinder.
“At first, I thought people were relinquishing material resources and building up social credits, and maybe the whole economy was around brokering relationships with people. But that didn’t hold up, because the behaviour persisted among people who were not likely to see each other again,” Hauch says.
“It started to look like generalized reciprocity… When resources can’t be stored, they’re distributed, and the integrity of that is what keeps everybody alive.”
● ● ●
When Hauch left Main Street Project in 1984, he was deeply pessimistic about the prospect of ending homelessness. In retrospect, his pessimism was well founded: In the years since, the situation has only gotten worse.
“I didn’t think we would ever fix it,” Hauch says, now seated at the dining room table in his home.
The place is well-furnished and tidy, with art hanging on the walls. Steam rises from a mug of coffee on the table. Through the window, the afternoon sun seeps into the room, illuminating dust particles in the air.
What Hauch’s home offers is the same thing everyone seeks in a home: safety. The home grants protection from the outside world. It is the place each of us can let down our guard and unwind. It is the centre of one’s life. When that is lost, the fallout is severe.
Part of the problem, Hauch realized, was an entire industry existed on the strip that didn’t just profit off homelessness but promoted it. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.”
“I figured we wouldn’t show the compassion to skid row people that they showed to one another, that there wouldn’t be a feeling of citizens’ obligation to support them and to put together a meaningful solution,” Hauch continues.
“This problem didn’t seem to materially impact the larger society, so the average person did not see it as a problem that needed to be solved — regardless of how much suffering was experienced by people. The social-control response seemed to be the way to go.”
By “social-control response,” Hauch means an effort to mitigate the impact of homelessness on the wider world, rather than put an end to it — and research indicates that approach has been a failure.
It’s been suggested homelessness costs Canadians more than $7 billion a year, with at least $1.1 billion coming from “housing” the chronically homeless in jails, emergency shelters, hospitals and psychiatric wards.
Advocacy groups assert those costs could be significantly reduced through increased investment: For every $10 spent on addressing the root causes of homelessness, it’s argued there are savings of $21 on health care, housing and justice.
For Hauch, however, it’s not about crass economic calculations. There’s a humanist rationale for taking steps to end homelessness. It has to do with the lesson he learned 40 years ago, when a group of “skid-row winos” stepped in to save him from a vicious beating.
It’s because it’s the right thing to do. It’s because when you see human suffering, you’re supposed to act, not look the other way. And if things are going to change, Hauch believes more people need to experience the same epiphany he did in 1980.
“People need to actually talk with the people in these circumstances. The thing that will impress you is how little they had, to begin with. The cards they were dealt were very different. And you’ll be struck by the fact they value hard work and take pride in doing awful, horrible labour,” Hauch says.
“And even in the worst circumstances, they are kind and loyal to one another…. It’s not the Manitoba way to let people struggle like that. If our neighbours are in trouble, off we go… if only we saw these people as Winnipeggers, as fellow citizens, reflexively we would want to help.”
“It’s like the social compact didn’t kick in… The starting point for too many people was, ‘What’s wrong with them is in their head and you can’t fix that.’” – Chris Hauch
Despite the work Hauch and his colleagues at Main Street Project did in the 1970s and ‘80s, homelessness in Winnipeg continued to spiral out of control, as it did across Canada. In large part, that’s because the sector lacked the resources to do more than provide emergency services.
Eventually, Hauch came to see his work as applying Band-Aids to bullet wounds. It was clear to him it wasn’t possible to address the root causes of homelessness by just keeping people alive. And so, as he wrapped up his research, he was pessimistic about the future.
“The most disheartening thing is when we don’t even try, and we don’t try because we believe those people are volunteering for that lifestyle,” Hauch says, rising from the table and stepping into the kitchen to make another cup of coffee.
“It’s like the social compact didn’t kick in… The starting point for too many people was, ‘What’s wrong with them is in their head and you can’t fix that.’”
And that’s what Hauch finds most depressing.
It’s not that we failed to fix the problem.
It’s that we didn’t really try.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Saturday, December 26, 2020 11:16 AM CST: Updates images.