A team of politicians representing Winnipeg’s downtown and inner-city communities at all levels of government are calling for immediate investments in social housing, front-line and community-based organizations and low-barrier spaces for under-resourced citizens.
The joint statement, signed by eight elected officials and released Feb. 5, highlights the need for better health and housing resources and services in the city, which have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think, from what I can see, we were entrusting other people to lead. We were hoping that our current government, and all the other levels of government, would do it. And I think (we) … finally had enough, and we want to take charge on this issue," Coun. Vivian Santos (Point Douglas) told The Times.
The statement was initiated by NDP MP Leah Gazan (Winnipeg Centre), and was supported by NDP MLAs Bernadette Smith (Point Douglas), Uzoma Asagwara (Union Station), Malaya Marcelino (Notre Dame), Lisa Naylor (Wolseley), and city councillors Santos, Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre).
The letter emphasized the need for more low-barrier or barrier-free spaces. Barriers may include restrictions on pets, belongings, site capacity, and the well-being of an individual in terms of intoxication.
"When we say barrier-free, it’s basically accessible to everyone. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what your mental health issues (are), or what your addictions are — you would be welcome in these safe spaces," Santos said.
Winnipeg has the greatest need for Indigenous housing of all metropolitan cities in Canada, according to a report released by the parliamentary budget officer on Feb. 11. An estimated 9,000 homes are needed, well above the 143 affordable housing units that have been created in Manitoba since Canada’s National Housing Strategy was announced in 2017, the report said.
Winnipeg is set to receive $12.5 million from the federal Rapid Housing Initiative, an investment of $1 billion to increase housing across the country.
In an email to The Times, Families Minister Rochelle Squires said the Manitoba government "will continue working collaboratively with community partners to invest in solutions to protect the most vulnerable Manitobans."
Squires noted the province recently announced more funding — for a total of $2.1 million — for isolation units operated by Main Street Project, which are being used by people experiencing homelessness who have tested positive for COVID-19.
However, Point Douglas MLA Smith said the onus cannot be shoved on to community organizations — more permanent solutions need to be sought to put people into homes.
"The shelters are doing a great job. But I think providing food and shelter isn’t enough, we need more healing work," she said. "There’s lots of social housing that’s sitting empty, that just might need a paint job for a family to get into that housing."
She added that there’s also a lack of transitional housing for youth aging out of care.
At the civic level, the City of Winnipeg "continues to be the last line of defence" on issues pertaining to housing, homelessness, mental health and addictions, an email from Mayor Brian Bowman’s office stated.
"With less resources and legislative jurisdiction, the City is taking a compassionate approach that seeks to connect unsheltered individuals with available services," the statement said, noting that the City’s main effort has been on the immediate need for shelters and transitional housing for unsheltered Winnipeggers.
Santos said councillors are already doing what they can, using as an example the safe consumption site motion introduced by Rollins and Gilroy in January. The motion calls on Winnipeg’s public service to "report on the merits and feasibility of establishing a low barrier, supervised drug consumption site" — something that has been continually blocked by the Province.
Not only are bus shelters being used by people experiencing homelessness to attain some level of respite from the cold, but they have become "safe" injection sites, too, Smith said.
"We need a safe consumption site — that would help alleviate some of what’s happening, as well."
The Times community journalist
If The Buggles’ 1979 breakout single were about Sydney, it might be called Print Killed the Radio Star. Before she joined Canstar Community News, Sydney was an anchor and a reporter for a few local news radio stations in rural Manitoba. After realizing she enjoyed writing more than speaking, Sydney moved to Winnipeg just months after graduating from Carleton University in Ottawa with degrees in journalism and geography. Through clenched teeth and frostbitten fingers, she has come to appreciate Winnipeg — numbing winters and all. When she’s not in the newsroom, Sydney can be found playing card games, listening to music, and writing content for her friends who are too cheap to hire a PR team. Sydney has a strong heart for community news and believes every neighbourhood, town and city is better off because of it — although she may be biased. Sydney loves learning about communities and what makes them tick, which is why she’s grateful to be a reporter covering northwest Winnipeg neighbourhoods, where resilience and innovation is abundant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org