Even in the heart of winter, a little warmth can be found in Osborne Village.
1 Just City, an organization that provides outreach centres throughout Winnipeg, has partnered with St. Augustine United Church on River Avenue to offer a new program, which offers a safer space for those seeking a place to sleep.
“Just A Warm Sleep started because of the call out from Michael Champagne to ‘let our relatives in,’” Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, fund developer for 1 Just City, says. “(It was) about the woman who froze to death. (Champagne) said ‘Why is this happening? Our buildings are warm. They’re heated. Why are they locked?’"
The program’s inception on Jan. 26 was an emergency response to the cold weather warning of -10 C (or -17 C with the windchill). The goal is to host 15 individuals every evening for 64 days, as Just A Warm Sleep is funded through donations from 64 donors, or as the organization calls them, ‘heroes.’
The program costs $250 per evening to run and also provides individuals with their own blankets and bag of toiletries.
“There’s been this call out for churches to open their space, and all our member charities are housed inside of churches,” Blaikie Whitecloud says. “We had the right relationships with these churches to do this.”
This program addresses more than the issue of cold weather. A tweet sent out recently by 1 Just City states “It’s not just that people are homeless - it’s also that our city is affordable housing-less.”
“We have people working full-time who need a place to sleep,” Blaikie Whitecloud says. “There’s a significant challenge in the city of Winnipeg … and it’s heart-wrenching and not okay that we don’t have enough spaces for them to be inside.”
In order to use the space in St. Augustine, the program required a bylaw lift, which allowed individuals a sleeping mat for the evening. Anything more than a mat would require other bylaws to be lifted as well.
“But people prefer mats, because then they are not as far away from their stuff, so that’s okay,” Blaikie Whitecloud says.
Haley Hickey, lead volunteer coordinator for the program, says it’s hard seeing individuals in distress, but this propels her to keep doing this work.
“Being able to be a part of something that provides someone their basic human right is really important,” Hickey says.
Hickey says she has been getting feedback from those who use the program to urge more churches and mosques to open their doors in different corners of the city.
“Living in the Village and getting to know the people in the Village and realizing that they’re coming here to be warm and safe (and they) sometimes haven’t had a warm meal or sleep in days,” Hickey says. “It’s hard to see people in distress … but at the same time that’s kind of why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
The program also accepts those dealing with substance abuse problems.
“We are not a dry space, which means you can be under the influence in that space, whatever that looks like for folks,” Blaikie Whitecloud says. “ We wanted to make sure that we weren’t putting barriers in place for people to get there.”
There is a security guard present throughout the evening, and they have instilled a code of conduct, which requires individuals to be respectful of others' property and focus on building community.
“We really identify with people who come into our space as family. We use the word family (and) we talk about checking in with our family,” Blaikie Whitecloud says.