July 17, 2018

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Giving homeless a voice

Organizers hope stories collected will help those living on Winnipeg streets

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Census volunteer Heather Campbell-Enns interviews a homeless person near Higgins Avenue and Main Street Wednesday.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Census volunteer Heather Campbell-Enns interviews a homeless person near Higgins Avenue and Main Street Wednesday.

WHEN Terry Land celebrates his 60th birthday in July, it’ll mark one year of living on Winnipeg’s streets.

During that time, he’s learned that when the city’s shelters fill up — as they often do — it’s best to look for a bus shack to curl up in for the night. Sometimes, he says, even those have no vacancy.

“Some days are rough. A lot of the time, it’s cold. The bus shacks are a little warmer in the winter because they’ve got heaters under the seats. But a lot of times, they’re already taken,” Land said. “I’m hoping this year will be better than the last.

“I don’t want to be here next year. Before the summer is over, I’m going to work on getting out of this situation.”

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WHEN Terry Land celebrates his 60th birthday in July, it’ll mark one year of living on Winnipeg’s streets.

During that time, he’s learned that when the city’s shelters fill up — as they often do — it’s best to look for a bus shack to curl up in for the night. Sometimes, he says, even those have no vacancy.

"Some days are rough. A lot of the time, it’s cold. The bus shacks are a little warmer in the winter because they’ve got heaters under the seats. But a lot of times, they’re already taken," Land said. "I’m hoping this year will be better than the last.

"I don’t want to be here next year. Before the summer is over, I’m going to work on getting out of this situation."

Land was one of hundreds of people surveyed Wednesday during the second Winnipeg Street Census, a large-scale, community-based research effort aimed at compiling data about the city’s homeless population.

Conducted by more than 300 volunteers and 20 agencies, people experiencing homelessness were interviewed at 49 social services agencies and seven shelters. In addition, volunteers combed more than 120 kilometres of walking routes.

When the first street census was conducted in October 2015, it found at least 1,400 homeless people in Winnipeg.

On Wednesday, Land was surveyed outside Siloam Mission while he was waiting for the shelter’s free supper to be served. While he spoke with volunteers, about 40 people stood around in the parking lot in groups, smoking or leaning against the side of the building where cardboard was laid out to serve as makeshift mats.

After moving to Winnipeg in 2014, Land said he lived with his daughter, until she began smoking crack cocaine in 2017. A former crack addict himself, he said he knew he couldn’t be around the drug without relapsing. But after leaving their home and finding himself with no place to stay, Land said life on the streets didn’t prove any more conducive to sobriety.

"I still struggle with (addiction). Crack. It was always crack. But since I’ve been homeless, I got into injecting (methamphetamine). I always said to myself I would never do it, but I did. The first time I ever did it, I liked it right way. All reality is gone. I was just in my own little world. Nothing bugged me, unemployment, homelessness, nothing," Land said, before indicating he injected the drug into his arms.

"And sometimes my neck," he added.

By trying to speak to everyone who’s homeless in Winnipeg in one day, Brent Retzlaff, the project’s volunteer co-ordinator, said he knew it was an impossible task. Nonetheless, he said the street census is important work that needs to be done.

In particular, Retzlaff said those who experience "hidden homelessness" — defined as couch-surfing or crashing with family or friends — can be difficult to track.

"No matter what we count today, it’s going to be an under-count. It will be the bare minimum of the number of people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg. We know there’s no way we’re going to speak to every single person. We know the count’s not going to reach everybody," he said.

"We see it in the inner city every day, but we also know there are other areas of the city were people are experiencing homelessness. If you’re out and about, you can see that poverty is an issue in Winnipeg. It’s something the city as a whole needs to come together and work on."

Al Wiebe, 63, is a volunteer who brings a unique perspective to the project, having been spent more than a year homeless in Winnipeg.

A former advertising salesman who made more than $100,000 a year, Wiebe said unmedicated clinical depression led to him losing his job in 2009. He was bankrupt and homeless four months later.

"I just sort of ended up crashing and burning," Wiebe said.

Shortly before he wound up homeless, Wiebe said, he sold his Mercedes to help fund his out-of-control spending habits. Months later, at his lowest point, he said found himself living in a 40-year-old broken-down Mercedes with a leaky sunroof and broken window at the back of a junkyard on McPhillips Street.

Homeless, hopeless and suicidal, Wiebe said he walked to a bridge early one fall day in 2010. When he got there, he jumped.

Wiebe said he waited to die, but washed up on the riverbank instead. A trip to St. Boniface Hospital led to a stay at Victoria General Hospital, and eventually to the Salvation Army, where he lived for six months and met his girlfriend of six years.

The two of them live together in a small apartment, with Wiebe filling his days working and volunteering on projects — such as the Winnipeg Street Census — aimed at helping those experiencing hardship.

"By conducting this survey, their voices are being heard. That’s really, really important. We’re finding out how we can better provide services, what the demographics are, how we can better program. The government is hard enough to get funding from. They work with data — so we’re getting as precise of numbers as we can get and we are forwarding that on," Wiebe said.

"To me, it’s really, really important to be a part of this. I know a lot of the people out there. I’ve been there. I have a vested interest in this."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

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.

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