Every year, people experiencing houselessness in Winnipeg die from exposure to frigid Prairie temperatures. However, their stories largely go untold. There is no governing body that tracks the deaths of houseless people in Canada. Tom Brodbeck called attention to this shame three years ago in an article for the Winnipeg Sun, and yet no federal government agency has taken action.
People experiencing houselessness in Winnipeg have names, stories, goals and hopes, just like every other Manitoba resident, but because of housing insecurity, they live at incredible risk. Mild at first, this season now brings with it the usual challenges of previous Prairie winters. As if the cold wasn’t enough, people experiencing houselessness in 2021 also face the threat of a viral pandemic.
COVID-19 has changed how emergency shelters must run, with shelters limiting capacity to promote the safety of the people using their services. This means fewer beds available to a population for whom a warm place to spend the night can quite literally be the difference between life and death.
Emergency shelters and other related community services like food banks have seen an increase in the amount of people using their services, due to hardships related to the pandemic. In the last month alone, 1,167 people have accessed an emergency shelter in Winnipeg.
In an effort to stay warm and perhaps avoid the crowds at emergency shelters, some folks experiencing houselessness have taken to finding temporary refuge in Winnipeg bus shacks. 311 has received record numbers of calls related to bus shelters being used as temporary homes and unofficial consumption sites for those who need a safe place to use drugs. Some of these bus shacks have been cleared, with the folks in them told to go to emergency shelters that may or may not have space. However, like clockwork, the bus shelters fill again.
The use of bus shelters as emergency refuge from the cold can be directly linked to the closure of community centres, libraries and the indoor areas of fast-food joints where people experiencing houselessness often went to warm up. Simply put, people are becoming desperate for a safe place to escape the winter weather.
Additionally, advocates from End Homelessness Winnipeg stress that the story doesn’t end with more funding for emergency shelters. Instead, the organization has told reporters that long-term affordable housing and transitional housing options must be made largely available.
While the provincial government has invested over $2 million over the last year in emergency shelters and outreach organizations, the current state of bus shelters downtown indicates that this amount just isn’t enough.
The provincial government must do more. If there was ever a time that the citizens of Manitoba needed additional investment in social services to keep them safe, it’s now. In particular, those experiencing houselessness, who are among the most vulnerable, require rapid, effective action by the provincial government.
Haley Charney is a rhetoric and communications major at the University of Winnipeg. She believes strongly that investing in our community and supporting the most vulnerable are key to creating a more just society for us all.
Published in Volume 75, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 3, 2021)