STAFF and volunteers at the only overnight shelter in The Pas will be unloading truckloads of supplies throughout the month after getting a desperately needed cash infusion.
Boxes containing essentials such as cookware, industrial kitchen appliances and PPE continue to arrive at Oscar’s Place, a 10-room shelter that sleeps up to 26 people. It’s only open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily.
Oscar’s Place has received $37,979 from Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents northern chiefs.
"I felt the money needed to go to support Oscar’s Place," said executive director Kelvin Lynxleg.
The next closest overnight shelter is in Thompson, 386 kilometres away. People travel to The Pas for refuge from all over the region, from as far away as Cumberland House, Sask., and the remote First Nations community of Pukatawagan.
"Normally, a shelter is a lifeline to those who don’t have anywhere to go, but in the north, it’s particularly important because of the harsher climate," said Carolyn Smeltzer, technical unit manager at Swampy Cree Tribal Council.
Dave Brauer, chairman with Oscar's Place, said there’s a "night and day" difference between shelter availability in urban centres like Winnipeg versus the north.
The pandemic has forced other area shelters to restrict the number of people allowed inside.
Friendship Centre staff continue to deliver regular meals to unhoused people and the town’s low-income residents whenever it’s safe to do so.
"I want to help our homeless population as much as I can, but I’m not going to put my staff in jeopardy," said Douglas Bartlett, the friendship centre’s executive director. "Oscar’s Place should be open 24 hours a day — but it’s not."
It means the homeless population has to search for somewhere else to go. Those familiar with Oscar’s Place said it’s not uncommon to see people standing outside year-round, waiting for it to open.
"Businesses are closed, bathrooms are closed due to the pandemic. It’s basic things, basic amenities that everyone should have access to," Lynxleg said.
During winter, many homeless people were suffering from frostbite, an issue Smeltzer said was "totally preventable" if more resources had been available. In reaction, the tribal council and MKO worked together to open a temporary day site in The Pas to bide time until the cold spell broke.
Lynxleg also hopes Oscar’s Place will eventually have enough funding to remain open during the day.
"Summer’s coming up. It’s going to get hot. There’ll be people sitting outside with no access to water," she said.
With the new funding secured, both parent organizations want to see Indigenous culture and food included in Oscar’s Place’s services.
A chef from the University College of the North trained a handful of Oscar’s Place staff in food safety and preparing Indigenous cuisine.
Smeltzer said finding a space large enough to host the training was a challenge due to public health restrictions. "They accommodated us very well."
Samantha Chartrand, 44, began working at the shelter as a cook just over a year ago.
Chartrand spent Thursday afternoon plucking geese and preparing them for dinner, which included fried bannock, duck, and soup.
"I want the (clients) to feel happy. I want them to feel safe, comfortable, relaxed, (to) have a good night’s sleep," Chartrand said.
There are a lot of familiar faces at Oscar’s Place. Many clients are chronically homeless and have been on and off the streets for two decades or more. Some clients are older adults.
"I do know that one particular client has gotten to the point where he’s in need of full-time care," Smeltzer said. "The challenge there is the staff really don’t know how to start the process to get him into proper care."
Whether it be for older adults or those looking to transition into stable housing, bridging gaps in housing is a concern for shelter services in The Pas and other northern communities such as Thompson.
MKO received $218,000 from Indigenous Services Canada. It gave a share to several other groups, including 95 Cree Road — a housing facility in Thompson — and Mama Bear Clan street patrol in Winnipeg.
"We want to help where we can to make things better for our people, wherever they reside throughout Manitoba," Lynxleg said. "We were very happy that we were able to do this and make a difference — even if it was a small difference."
The Metro community journalist
Katlyn Streilein is the community journalist for The Metro.