On the unseasonably mild first night of the year, an Osborne Village church opened its doors to those looking for a warm place to sleep.
The five people who showed up at Augustine United Church on Jan. 1 were among the first Winnipeggers to benefit from renewed federal funding that allows emergency cold-weather shelters to stay open when the weather is warmer than -10 C.
Demand for safe shelter during the winter months doesn’t dip just because the mercury rises, said Tessa Whitecloud, executive director of 1 Just City, which runs the warming centre Just a Warm Sleep at the Osborne church.
"Every year, our numbers have risen," Whitecloud said. "As we see a rise in meth use in our community, we see a rise in the need for spaces that are no barrier for people who’ve been using."
Four winters after Winnipeg first developed a plan designed to keep its most vulnerable residents out of the cold — prompted by the tragic death of a 29-year-old woman — Just a Warm Sleep is just one of the winter warming centres that now support the city’s homeless population.
However, funding can be precarious, and the more than 10 outreach teams out on the streets have yet to perfect a co-ordinated, around-the-clock schedule.
Until the end of November 2019, Just a Warm Sleep didn’t know whether it had secured the $15,000 it would need to stay open every night from Jan. 1 to March 31 for the second year in a row.
The money, used to hire a second overnight employee, is federal funding delivered through End Homelessness Winnipeg, which took over local management of Canada’s homelessness strategy from the City of Winnipeg in April.
Whether the funding will be there next winter remains to be seen, Whitecloud said. For now, consistent opening hours, starting at 9 p.m., have made the space more popular, particularly among women.
The number of overnight admissions by women more than doubled last winter, climbing to 340 from less than 100 the previous year, when the space was only open according to the weather. The majority of clients are men, and about 38 per cent of the total 1,858 admissions last winter accounted for people older than 45.
Just a Warm Sleep is one of the only warming centres in the city that welcomes people who are not sober — they’re not allowed to use drugs on site — and lets them bring in pets and shopping carts.
"If you’re experiencing homelessness and you need to check the weather channel to find out if a place is open — we would try to make those calls a few days in advance — that was really difficult. It was difficult for staff, it was difficult to have volunteers on site, just all around it was really complicated," Whitecloud said.
"Having the funding allows us to be a stable location that guests can rely on for these three months... a lot of our guests talk about feeling like it’s a space in which they’re offered a lot of dignity," she added. "We’re really about meeting people where they’re at."
There is a recognized need for consistent access to warming centres throughout the winter, said Lissie Rappaport, manager of Housing Supply & Access at End Homelessness Winnipeg.
"We did a targeted call earlier in November to support cold-weather activities because we know that there’s a gap in current services, and through that we were able to fund groups like Just a Warm Sleep," she said.
Winnipeg’s Extreme Cold Weather Response Plan for this winter includes several shelters, outreach agencies, van and foot patrols that are working together to make sure no one falls victim to the bitter cold. It’s work that began in the wake of the December 2017 death of Windy Sinclair, who froze outside a West Broadway apartment building while struggling with meth addiction.
They’re making progress to prevent future deaths, and there’s more work to do, Rappaport said.
"The biggest thing that I would like to see happen is better co-ordination among the outreach teams," she said. "We’re trying to make sure that there is somebody on the road at all times of day, every day, but being able to better co-ordinate those resources is a priority for us going forward into the new year."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, January 2, 2020 at 11:36 PM CST: Updates photo caption.