Seeking a more compassionate alternative

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LET’S think the best of Winnipeg authorities and ascribe honorable intentions to their reluctance to evict bus-shelter squatters.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/03/2022 (201 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LET’S think the best of Winnipeg authorities and ascribe honorable intentions to their reluctance to evict bus-shelter squatters.

The officials likely feel compassion for people who feel their best option is to stay outdoors during the winter. Who doesn’t? We all feel sorry for anyone who has to spend nights in temperatures that are dangerously cold.

The prevailing rationale seems to be respecting the rights of squatters to make their own decisions, even when they refuse frequent invitations to come in from the cold and sleep in institutional shelters where, at a minimum, they can rest on mats in a place that is warm.

There’s also the Indigenous factor, an area of particular sensitivity in Winnipeg. Many of the squatters appear to be Indigenous, and their life choices are often related to generational dysfunction rooted in shameful colonial measures such as residential schools.

For authority figures to regularly acknowledge living on treaty land and then roust Indigenous people from bus shelters in which they’ve sought reprieve from the elements would seem like we’ll-tell-you-where-to-go colonialism.

Everyone agrees something needs to be done but, so far, no one has proposed a solution that is both decisive and effective.

The problem and the search for solutions are not unique to this city, of course. California’s governor ignited considerable debate last week when he proposed mandated treatment for people who are homeless and living with addictions and severe mental illness. Critics were quick to say forcing people into treatment without their consent would be a dangerous violation of their civil rights.

If we accept that no one in Winnipeg seems to have a better idea, perhaps we’re ready for a conversation about what California is doing.

Winnipeg current position — stand back and let downtown bus shelters be claimed by victims of drug addiction and mental illness — seems unfair to passengers waiting for buses. They’re understandably reluctant to enter close quarters with people who appear unstable and are often living in a litter of liquor bottles, needles and bags containing solvents.

It’s even more unfair to the people staying in the shelters, which are wide-open to the brutalities of passersby who can be even more dangerous than the frigid weather. The shelter at Portage Avenue and Edmonton Street was the site of a death on Feb. 22 and a weapons assault the next night. One at Portage near Garry Street was the location of a sexual assault on Jan. 22 and then it was burned down Jan. 27.

Firefighters and paramedics were called to downtown Winnipeg bus shelters an average of almost five times a day during 2021.

Winnipeggers concerned about homelessness have proposed addressing the roots of poverty, increasing treatment availability and building more government-subsidized housing. Such long-term vision is commendable, but of no immediate comfort to people who will sleep outdoors tonight.

California will try a more aggressive approach if Gov. Gavin Newsom gets his way. His plan will compel some people experiencing homelessness to get court-ordered psychiatric treatment and medication. They won’t have the option of declining.

“There’s no compassion stepping over people in the streets and sidewalks,” Newsom told media. “We could hold hands, have a candlelight vigil, talk about the way the world should be, or we could take some damn responsibility to implement our ideals, and that’s what we’re doing differently here.”

The governor said people compelled into treatment would be represented by public defenders in new mental-health branches in civil courts. Judges would order clinical assessments to determine if people should be placed under care for up to 24 months.

Critics of the proposal said it’s an alarming violation of civil liberties to lock people up and subject them to treatment against their will. Proponents respond that mandated intervention is helping people who are not fit to help themselves.

In Winnipeg, Coun. Kevin Kline last week called for a special meeting with stakeholders to come forward with “potential solutions” to the problem of people living year-round in Winnipeg bus shelters.

It’s to be hoped the meeting can consider the possibility that some people in Winnipeg bus shelters are too sick to realize they need care, that mandated treatment would be doing what’s best for people incapable of acting in their own best interests.

Perhaps it’s a more compassionate alternative than averting our eyes as we walk past the damaged individuals wasting away while on display.

carl.degurse@freepress.mb.ca

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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