Half a dozen people escaped serious injury after a fire broke out at a homeless encampment under the Osborne Street Bridge Wednesday morning.

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Half a dozen people escaped serious injury after a fire broke out at a homeless encampment under the Osborne Street Bridge Wednesday morning.

"Everybody's fine," said one of the residents, who goes by Granny and didn't want to give her name or age.

Fire crews were called about 7:43 a.m. and had the blaze under control by 8:09 a.m. (Supplied)</p>

Fire crews were called about 7:43 a.m. and had the blaze under control by 8:09 a.m. (Supplied)

The spry, elderly woman who is the group's matriarch, said one of the young women living there suffered minor burns to her hand.

"The tent was melting on her fingers," she said. "The paramedics treated her. She has little blisters on her hands. She's fine."

Someone knocked over a candle, and the fire quickly spread, with thick smoke filling the area, Granny said.

Large clouds of heavy black smoke billowed out from under the bridge during the morning commute. A woman who contacted a Free Press reporter said homeless people at the scene were crying and asked her to call 911. One of them told her a resident of the encampment accidentally knocked over a candle while sleeping, she said.

Billy, 43, lost everything in the fire, adding to the stress he has experienced over the past five years. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Billy, 43, lost everything in the fire, adding to the stress he has experienced over the past five years. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Group donates 2,500 pairs of socks 

A day before fire tore through a homeless camp under the Osborne Street Bridge, a group had collected 2,500 pairs of socks to donate to Winnipeg's Agape Table.

"We'll try and get it there a soon as possible because it's starting to get colder," said Winnipeg's Harold Onagi, chapter president of the Canada Post Heritage Club.

A day before fire tore through a homeless camp under the Osborne Street Bridge, a group had collected 2,500 pairs of socks to donate to Winnipeg's Agape Table.

"We'll try and get it there a soon as possible because it's starting to get colder," said Winnipeg's Harold Onagi, chapter president of the Canada Post Heritage Club.

The 2,500 retired and long-service postal workers have been helping the downtown soup kitchen by filling the gaps of what's needed.

"The reason we chose Agape is they don't have the high profile some of the other groups have," said Onagi, 78. He is storing the packages of new socks in his garage until they can be delivered.

"The homeless people that frequent the place wear the socks till they wear out — till all that's left is just threads."

Agape Table is appreciative but says more are needed.

"People put plastic bags over their feet to keep them warm and dry and when their shoes have holes," said Dave Feniuk, general manager of Agape Table, adding that the bags end up trapping moisture, resulting in problems such as foot fungus.

And when it turns cold, things get even more dangerous for people living on the street.

"We're always pleading with the public to get winter weather wear that doesn't fit you anymore that's still really useful to our guests," Feniuk said. "If your feet are dry and your head is covered, you stay quite a bit warmer."

Agape Table connects clients with the Community Homeless Assistance Team to find housing for people, but not everyone wants it, he said.

"A lot of the people on the streets are suffering from mental-health issues and can't conform to the rules," he said. "They're on the streets by their own choice because they can't live in a dwelling with rules."

— Carol Sanders

"Unfortunately for them, they also had Roman candles and (other) fireworks in their camp, which is why there were explosions," she said.

The City of Winnipeg said fire crews were called about 7:43 a.m. and had the blaze under control by 8:09 a.m. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and officials couldn't immediately confirm fireworks were involved.

The fire destroyed half of the shelter residents had set up under the bridge. A tent, kitchen chairs, cooking implements, a broom and carpets on the muddy river bank remained next to the charred ruins.

Granny said her belongings at one end of the encampment under the south side of the bridge were untouched by the fire.

"I was at the edge," she said.

That wasn't the case for one of her cohabitants, who said he lost what little he had.

"It's just stuff," said the man, who wanted to be identified only as Billy.

Residents of a homeless encampment under the Osborne Street Bridge look through rubble following a fire Wednesday morning. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Residents of a homeless encampment under the Osborne Street Bridge look through rubble following a fire Wednesday morning. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Loss is nothing new to him.

"I've had a rough five years," the 43 year old said. He's lost his family, his marriage and, in recent months, 87 pounds after his cancer returned. Billy said he's grateful to be living with Granny and the Osborne Street Bridge group in a safe place where everyone is respected.

"It's Granny's rules. Nobody ever goes without. There's a sense of camaraderie. We stick together," Billy said.

The half-dozen people living under the bridge are usually up at daybreak, Granny said of their routine Wednesday morning before returning to the scene of the fire.

She had gone to a nearby shelter and was given a hot drink, a coat and socks.

After the fire crews had cleared out, workers from Main Street Project arrived. One, who said he couldn't comment to the media, noted they regularly check on the people living in tents by the river.

"We're here to help," he said.

Within 24 hours of the City of Winnipeg receiving a call about an encampment, Main Street Project's van patrol team investigates the public safety of a site and the safety of the individuals living in it. The patrol team's involvement comes after advocates for the homeless criticized a plan by the city earlier this year to contract the removal of bulky waste from temporary encampments. That plan was scrapped.

Granny said she's not sure what she'll do now but can guess what will happen: "They'll make us move," she said.

How to help

Click to Expand

Agape Table, at 364 Furby St., is looking for donations of winter wear and other items.

For information, contact 204-786-2370 or visit here.

To help Main Street Project's patrols helping homeless people, call 204-982-8229 or click here.

She is adamant she doesn't want to go to a shelter, but said she is not going to fret about it.

"You can't worry about everything, you'll make yourself sick," she said, while sipping a hot drink, clutching a fleece blanket and smoking a cigarette.

Billy doesn't want to go to a homeless shelter, either.

"It's a bed in a room full of beds. Everybody is out for themselves," he said. "I don't feel safe."

A National Poverty Advisory Council member said the charred remains of Billy and Granny's camp should be cleaned up and the inhabitants allowed to stay.

"I really feel that moving people and their domiciles is wrong," said Al Wiebe, chair of the Lived Experience Circle, who sits on the National Poverty Advisory Council.

Wiebe knows homelessness first hand. He went from earning a six-figure salary in his 20s to living in an old Mercedes off Higgins Avenue in his 50s. Now in his 60s, Wiebe is doing advocacy work and volunteering. He applauds the Main Street Project's patrols and said he knows Granny, and that she's responsible. He respects her wishes about where she wants to live.

"Live and let live. Let them be," said Wiebe. "I really think if they get moved into housing it's going to fail. They don't want to be there anyway. Fires happen in apartments, too."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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