OUTREACH workers made contact with unsheltered Winnipeggers in places such as encampments and bus shelters 20,855 times during the last five months of 2021.

OUTREACH workers made contact with unsheltered Winnipeggers in places such as encampments and bus shelters 20,855 times during the last five months of 2021.

The combined efforts of Main Street Project and St. Boniface Street Links staff are detailed in a new report, after the city provided grants to support the agencies’ mobile outreach efforts last year.

Main Street found better housing for 45 unsheltered Winnipeggers between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31, while Street Links helped move 77 people into transitional or more permanent housing during the same period.

"(Our outreach) van provides an essential link and makes sure people are OK at a time of crisis… (It can) make sure no one’s out there dying in the streets," said Jamil Mahmood, executive director of the Main Street Project.

Mahmood said city funding has helped retain staff and 24-7 operations for Main Street’s outreach van, which is essential to coping with the winter weather.

"(At) times where we get extreme cold… having a mobile service that can reach out to meet people on the street and then transfer them to a safe place is so important," he said.

<p>Jamil Mahmood, executive director of Main Street Project, says mobile outreach works.</p>

Jamil Mahmood, executive director of Main Street Project, says mobile outreach works.

MSP also provides food, clothing, harm-reduction supplies and wellness checks to people in need.

"I think the big shift is having a service in our city that is not fire or police that can respond to these things at a much more community level… so it (also) frees up emergency services," said Mahmood.

Main Street also provided 2,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to unsheltered people in 2021, the city report notes.

The city provided about $269,000 to Main Street Project and about $134,000 to St. Boniface Street Links in interim grants for their mobile outreach efforts last year.

Council recently approved a $550,000 mobile outreach grant for each of 2022 and 2023, though an expression of interest will determine who qualifies for the funding, which kicks in after March 31.

The city report notes about 55 per cent of outreach responses during the final months of 2021 took place in the St. Boniface, Point Douglas and Daniel McIntyre wards.

Marion Willis, the executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, said the city grant, while just a portion of her organization’s funding, is "absolutely crucial" to keeping up the progress.

"This is what needs to happen if we want to be impactful in our efforts to end homelessness in the city," said Willis.

She said community partners are also key to her organization’s work in communities east of the Red River, including an arrangement with the La Salle Hotel.

After meeting folks at encampments and bus shacks to provide services in the community, Street Links rents rooms for those who are ready to move on.

During their hotel stay, outreach workers help address barriers to finding permanent homes, which can include securing health cards, other identification, social service supports and/or addiction services.

Folks then move into more permanent homes, where regular visits and supports continue, Willis said.

She said the efforts have helped reduce the number of encampments east of the Red River to just one from 32, between April 2021 and this month.

However, Willis cautions more camps could be set up soon as the temperature rises, raising the need for further support.

"We are bracing for the fact that there will be a whole new migration of people in the spring from the other side of the river and across into St. Boniface," she said.

In previous years, some city council members were reluctant to provide grants directly linked to housing and homelessness, which is traditionally a provincial responsibility.

But Coun. Sherri Rollins, the chairwoman of council’s protection committee, said the recent housing success stories, while "modest" in number, show why the city should permanently fund the grants.

"That’s what tells you that these investments are really critical," said Rollins.

The city report concludes that there is a clear need to continue the service and its municipal grant.

"With the need for mobile outreach services expected to remain, and likely increase in the coming years, this new granting program will be critical to meeting the basic needs of thousands of Winnipeggers," it notes.

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.