September 29, 2020

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Homeless people find fewer welcoming places

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/2/2019 (585 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On January 31, the Canada Revenue Agency froze the Thunderbird House’s bank account.

"We were doing so well and on top of our bills, finally," Thunderbird House Board co-Chair Richelle Scott called to inform me, "then this."

Thunderbird House owes, including debt and penalty charges, nearly $100,000 from decade-old debts. With new supporters, a capable accountant, and a focused board of directors, Thunderbird House was in the final stages of obtaining a loan to pay it all off.

Now, their cheques are bouncing – with, ironically, the final rejected one written to the CRA.

The board is now scrambling to negotiate a deal and running out of time. Other bills are piling up and they can’t access funds to pay them. Almost no income is coming in as staff can’t be paid and volunteers are hard to find.

"We’re now at a stand still," says Scott.

Winnipeg’s North End and downtown has struggled in the past but has reached its "tipping point." Organizations and spaces that for decades kept the central core of the city safe and alive are falling apart, closing, or cut to the bare minimum.

Activists and community leaders are fighting a losing battle while new condos, businesses, and gentrification take over the downtown.

Reports emerged last week that one of Winnipeg’s oldest institutions, the 61-year-old Indian and Métis Friendship Centre, had been ransacked and looted. It had been closed for months after dwindling funding and troubles with its board of directors. Once serving 7,000 vulnerable people a month with a food bank, parenting services, and cultural programs – not to mention providing employment and investment – the IMFC’s future is now very much in doubt.

A homeless Winnipeg man, Mr. Wolfe holds out his hands while talking about his efforts to keep the tent village he lives in peaceful.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

A homeless Winnipeg man, Mr. Wolfe holds out his hands while talking about his efforts to keep the tent village he lives in peaceful.

"It was a warm place to go," says Albert McLeod, a North End elder and activist, "and those places are disappearing. There are almost no safe places left."

Winnipeg’s most vulnerable are under attack.

A recent decision by the City of Winnipeg to install strict security measures at the Millennium Library effectively cuts those who live on the street out of the space.

The new measures begin Monday and feature uniformed security checking bags and patrons with a metal detector. Items such as weapons are then confiscated, and illegal items reported to police. No place is provided to store items or bags.

Weapons shouldn’t be in libraries, of course, but the reality is that if you live on the street you likely need a weapon to survive.

"I know a First Nations grandmother living in a shelter who sleeps with a hammer under her pillow and a hatchet by her side," McLeod told me. "Violence is a reality of life."

If you live on the street, a library is a lifeline. It’s free, warm, and a safe place that provides essential services like the internet and access to things like a newspaper.

I called Ed Cuddy, manager of library services, to ask if he knew the Millennium Library’s new security rules will effectively prevent many homeless from accessing one of their most important resources in the city.

He explained that the new rules are meant to "reduce risk" and pointed to the fact the Millennium library is one of the only in Canada to have social workers.

Then, Cuddy admitted: "The reality is that the vulnerable may now have a harder time accessing the library."

I asked him if a locker system or some kind of bag-check system could be instituted.

"We’re looking at that."

Download Warming shelters and outreach locations in Winnipeg

McLeod calls it "the Brian Sinclair syndrome. It’s when the homeless and the vulnerable aren’t seen as important, relevant, or even human beings."

In 2008, Brian Sinclair, a 45-year old disabled Indigenous man, died while still waiting for medical attention after 34 hours in the ER of the Health Sciences Centre. Nurses, doctors, and other staff went along their daily jobs without noticing or caring for a vulnerable man who was dying and unable to advocate for himself.

"The Brian Sinclair syndrome exists when people don’t care," McLeod tells me, "or, worse, don't share space or food or time with those who need help."

McLeod points to rules in buildings and offices throughout Winnipeg’s downtown that force people out into the cold after 20 minutes, and Indigenous-friendly spaces like Neechi Commons, the St. Regis Hotel, and the Carlton Hotel that have recently shut down.

There are about eight "official" shelters covering downtown Winnipeg. Most have fixed hours (where you have to leave by 7 a.m.), and limited beds (around 500 short-term and 400 longer term). Most rely on donations, fundraising, and the ebb and flow of government funding.

McLeod also points out how a lack of safe space leads to increased alcohol and drug use, which leads to addiction, violence and people using police services and filling ERs – when all they needed was a place to go.

Statistics are hard to obtain when assessing the homeless but the 2018 Winnipeg Street census, conducted in summer 2018, interviewed 1,500 homeless Winnipeggers and found out that the average age was 39, 65 per cent are male, and 61 per cent are Indigenous.

And, while the study found that homelessness was on the rise, the number of spaces for homeless people is declining.

Like Brian Sinclair, many of us are just walking by, continuing to build Winnipeg.

Places like the Thunderbird House are keeping this community going. We need to stand with them, not turn their lights off.

Winnipeg is at a tipping point now and, whether we invest in our community now or pay the bills and costs later, we need to do something about it.

If you’re reading this, you’re the one I’m speaking to.

Because the homeless can’t get into the library now to read this.

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Monday, February 25, 2019 at 8:35 PM CST: fixes typo

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