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This article was published 25/3/2020 (210 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A new shelter in St. Boniface to help the homeless stay safe during the novel coronavirus pandemic is closing its doors before its work has even begun — dissolving a needed and necessary resource in the community.
Marion Willis, founder and executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, told the Free Press her organization is being asked to shut down its temporary shelter inside Centre culturel franco-manitobain on Provencher Boulevard.
The CCFM donated a large space in its building to Street Links for the shelter, which began setting up Monday. Willis expected to open the doors to up to 40 people each night.
"The trouble is that while there may be plans on Main Street, there isn’t anything over here at all," she said. "This side of the river may as well not exist. There’s a large homeless population here. There are going to be homeless populations throughout the city that are going to be unplanned for.
"I’m quite worried."
A Street Links volunteer Willis described as a wonderful person who has done much to make their community a better place, suffered an onset of mental illness this week.
On Tuesday, while labouring under paranoid delusions, the volunteer rounded up staff at the CCFM offices and locked them in a room. The volunteer, who was in an agitated state, apparently believed there were threats against the life of people at the facility.
In a written statement, the Winnipeg Police Service confirmed it responded to a medical incident at the location, saying there was "no criminal element to this call."
Wednesday afternoon, Street Links and CCFM issued a joint press release confirming the closure of the shelter.
"(We) are unfortunately forced to terminate the proposed homeless shelter project at the Provencher Street location. This decision follows significant challenges encountered by the partners of this community project," the statement reads.
"This decision, although unfortunate, is necessary in light of the challenges encountered."
Willis stressed there is no blame to be assigned, either to the centre or the volunteer. Now, her organization must push forward to find an alternative location.
She said she's in talks with St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard and the Manitoba Metis Federation to see if another facility can be secured.
"It was pretty hard to find that location. Part of the problem is you’ve got fire codes, you’ve got building codes, you’ve got all these codes you’ve got to meet regardless of whether this is a crisis," Willis said.
In addition to losing the shelter in St. Boniface, the overnight shelter that operates out of the Augustine United Church in Osborne Village may soon close its doors, as well. The shelter operates annually from Jan. 1 to March 31.
Tessa Blaikie-Whitecloud, executive director of 1JustCity, the organization that runs the shelter, said a decision on whether to close or extend operations due to the pandemic is expected by the end of the week.
Willis said she’s worried Winnipeg is unprepared for the effect the virus will have on the homeless.
Until it can find another spot, Willis said Street Links will ramp up operations with its outreach van, which will travel in search of unsheltered people in the community, offering coffee, blankets and food. It will also instruct people to self-isolate in their camps.
"This is a population that largely relies on excess food from grocery stores, maybe dumpster-diving. It’s a population that relies on restaurants that open their back doors and hand some food to people. It’s a population that relies on public spaces like libraries for information," she said.
"Everything they could access from food to information has been cut off. There’s no shelter, no food, no information. They could have no idea just how serious this virus is. They would wonder, ‘Why is everything closed? Where did everybody go?’
"And this is a population the virus could devastate."
Willis is also worried the homeless could accelerate community transmission of the virus, as they are forced to travel further distances to meet their needs.
"I don’t think anybody is talking about that.… What is the plan for people who are unsheltered? If we really want to contain this, we need to have a plan for everybody," she said.
"By not sheltering and meeting the needs of the homeless population, we place the entire city at risk."
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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