First responders take on ’alarming and shocking’ number of homeless community calls
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Firefighters and paramedics are grappling with a flood of calls concerning some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.
A report compiled by the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service shows, during a two-month period (Dec. 1, 2022, to Jan. 31), its firefighters were called to battle 53 fires and its paramedics went on 958 medical calls (almost 16 per day) linked to the homeless population.
The numbers are high, and people who work with the homeless community say it shows more help is needed.
“Wow, it’s certainly concerning,” said Mitch Bourbonniere, a founding member of the volunteer Bear Clan Patrol who now provides support services for a number of organizations, including Mount Carmel Clinic, Circle of Life Thunderbird House and Bruce Oake Recovery Centre.
“It just goes to show the level of need some of our most valuable relatives need,” Bourbonniere said Wednesday. “People living in homeless encampments and alleys are just trying to survive. I would not have thought it was this high — it is surprising to hear.
“It is alarming and shocking to hear.”
Beneath a bridge in the Armstrong’s Point neighbourhood, a man and woman wrapped themselves in blankets Wednesday and huddled for warmth.
The 23-year-old man, who asked not to be named due to safety concerns, said he has been living periodically on Winnipeg streets for roughly two years.
When asked about the recent rate of fire and emergency responses he was not surprised, but said some of the calls for service may be unwarranted.
“People see a fire and automatically think, ‘Oh, that person is trying to do something bad,’ but… most (homeless) people are just cold in the winter, and they just want to warm up,” he said.
“The minute somebody sees smoke coming from down by the river or under the bridge, they’ll call the fire department. The fire department will more than likely call the police, and then we get kicked out and people start living in bus shacks.”
The man said expanding the city’s stock of overnight shelters, affordable housing and addiction supports could help address the problem.
He asked for empathy from the public, describing life on the streets as terrifying and violent.
The Manitoba government announced this week it is going to spend more on shelters for overnight stays, as well as transitional housing and rent subsidies as part of its $51-million strategy to help the homeless. Another $18 million would be put into adding affordable rental housing.
While the province is also aiming at opening 1,000 new spaces for substance use and addictions treatment (for $9 million), Marion Willis of St. Boniface Street Links said even more needs to be done to fight drug addictions.
“We will never get ahead of homelessness until we get a hand on it, and we won’t get a hand on it until we stop why people are becoming homeless,” she said.
“The root cause of this is the drug crisis — that’s where we have to invest more.”
Willis said the province’s homeless strategy “has missed the mark,” and unless the drug problem is tackled the number of fire and medical calls will continue to grow.
“There’s no plan to address the cause,” she said. “There is more shelter money and more housing money… there is more than one strategy needed to end homelessness.
“We’re feeling rather exasperated at this point.”
Mayor Scott Gillingham, who promised during last year’s election campaign to make battling homelessness a priority, said the statistics show why more needs to be done.
“This is why helping more unsheltered people move into safe accommodation is so critical,” the Winnipeg mayor said. “It’s not only the humanitarian thing to do, but it can also lead to significant savings for emergency services, and better health and safety outcomes for the whole community.”
Scott Wilkinson, WFPS assistant chief of community risk reduction, said the overall number of calls are high but agreed they aren’t all serious.
Wilkinson said ordinary Winnipeggers seeing somebody they believe is in trouble will call paramedics, who, once they assess the situation, can decide the person doesn’t need medical intervention.
However, fires are a different matter, Wilkinson said. The service has a dedicated employee working to reduce that number.
“We had a fatality here in 2021, and that’s what we are working hard to avoid,” he said. “We work hard to educate to not have improvised heating items in encampment shelters. Tarps burn easily but they also melt. It is dangerous for the people inside.”
WFPS is currently monitoring 14 homeless encampments, making the rounds to offer advice on reducing the risk of fires.
“Our goal is to try to keep them safe,” Wilkinson said. “But as long as people are staying in these situations, they are continuing to stay at risk.”
Tom Bilous, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said first responders would like to see more help for the homeless community because the number of calls for service would then drop.
“When you’re living that life, safety is not always paramount,” Bilous said. “Your priorities are staying warm and staying alive.”
In order to stay warm, some light a fire where it isn’t always safe, whether at an encampment or in a vacant building.
“When we arrive at a fire, we don’t know what started it, so we always assume somebody has started it. And because a vacant building doesn’t have gas or hydro connected, we assume someone has to be in there,” he said.
“That can lower the safety of our members… This is all avoidable.”
— with files from Tyler Searle
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.