Support is growing for the creation of a Main Street "Village" where unsheltered Winnipeggers can safely escape the cold.
The project would convert recycled shipping containers into 22 tiny residential units around Thunderbird House, while also creating a communal lodge where those in need can warm up safely and receive additional support services, said Thunderbird House co-chairman Damon Johnston.
Johnston said the bitter cold brings new safety risks for those staying outdoors, as they gather close to open fires to stay warm, often bringing along blankets.
"These things are flammable. Very quickly, these things catch fire, and we’ve already had the one death at an encampment (in Winnipeg)," said Johnston. "(Helping unsheltered Winnipeggers) is not just about creating the safe spaces or the safe structure, it’s having the capacity to monitor 24-7."
One person died Tuesday at a Higgins Avenue homeless camp when a temporary structure caught fire, renewing calls for more accessible permanent housing.
Lissie Rappaport, manager of housing supply for End Homelessness Winnipeg, said federal funding has been secured to cover $2.7 million toward the $5.9-million so-called "Village" project.
She hopes to receive a response by the end of next week on whether the federal Rapid Housing Initiative will provide the remaining $3.2 million.
Rappaport said additional operating dollars will be needed to cover 24-7 support services, though the final price for that is still being determined.
In the meantime, recent frigid temperatures and the COVID-19 pandemic are clearly highlighting the need for the tiny homes, she said.
"We have cold winters every year, so it definitely raises the urgency. COVID-19 has also accelerated the urgency because we’ve really found that housing is health care during this pandemic," said Rappaport, noting it’s difficult for unsheltered Winnipeggers to isolate from others.
Johnston said future Village residents would include those who cope with addictions and those who don’t, while non-profit groups offer "wraparound" services in the lodge.
"If they’ve got any kind of a challenge like addictions, mental health… whatever it is, then we’re going to have the people around them to address whatever they need ASAP."
The model is tailored to be culturally sensitive, since the city estimates about 80 per cent of the local homeless population identify as Indigenous, he said.
"We want them to become a family, literally… and that’s the beauty of an Indigenous platform. Historically, we have extended family and it doesn’t have to be blood relatives."
Coun. Vivian Santos (Point Douglas) hopes the 22 units are merely a starting point, since she’d like to see the project repeated with dozens of additional units on Higgins Avenue.
"I personally think we need closer to 80 to 100 units, but we’ve got to start somewhere," said Santos, who is advocating for the project on social media.
The project is supported by multiple Indigenous-led organizations, including Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre, Eagle Urban Transition Centre, End Homelessness Winnipeg and Thunderbird House.
The city has already approved a variance that would allow the Village project to be built, Santos said.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.