Donate, auction or destroy? 105 unused COVID visitation units up for grabs in Manitoba

The Manitoba government sent these all-season outdoor shelters to personal care homes so visits could continue in colder months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it's looking for interested parties to remove them. (Peggy Lam/CBC - image credit)
The Manitoba government sent these all-season outdoor shelters to personal care homes so visits could continue in colder months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it's looking for interested parties to remove them. (Peggy Lam/CBC - image credit)

The provincial government spent $24 million on external shelters so nursing home residents could have family visits during the pandemic — but now 105 of these units sit virtually unused and could wind up in the scrap heap.

The units, which were made of repurposed shipping containers, have faced scrutiny since they were announced in 2020.

What started as an $18 million-project touted as an investment for nursing homes battling COVID-19 ended in cost overruns, and the units were underutilized.

Now their fate is up for grabs as the province is seeking bids from the private sector and non-profits that will result in the shelters either being donated, auctioned off to the highest bidder or demolished and recycled as scrap by the lowest bidder.

Disposing of the units is a terrible idea, said local architect Wins Bridgman.

"What an extraordinary waste when there is so much need," he said.

"Why would we waste taxpayers dollars? And why would we lose an opportunity to help one another?"

His firm, BridgmanCollaborative Architecture, designed the public washrooms built on Main Street using shipping containers.

Located close to his firm, he said the positive impact for the community is seen everyday. He was disheartened by a recent city decision to cut the washrooms' hours.

He said there's an opportunity to repurpose these structures for more public washrooms or even a safe consumption site.

Shelters announced in June 2020

The government issued an expression of interest last week announcing they were removing the units and needed interested bidders to come to the table and offer options for how this could be accomplished.

Every option requires the bidder to be responsible for the cost of removing the units, with the province giving preference to bidders that choose the donation route.

The number of shelters available might change since provincial departments will have the option to obtain them for government use, and personal care homes are allowed to keep them if they accept full responsibility to ensure conformity with building codes and pay any additional property taxes.

"It's our hope that Manitobans will come up with creative ways to put these shelters to good use in our province," wrote Ross Romaniuk, press secretary for Government Services Minister James Teitsma.

Lenard Monkman/CBC
Lenard Monkman/CBC

The idea of repurposing the pods is something Will Goodon, minister of housing for the Manitoba Métis Federation, is considering.

"There's a great need for all kinds of different housing options within our community," he said.

"If there was a donation of a few dozen of these to our housing department, I'm pretty sure we could find uses for them."

The unit could be useful for unhoused people across the province, not just Winnipeg, he said.

"Young people, students, single parents who are trying to go back to school to better themselves. And, you know, that's one idea that was just coming to my head," he said.

Cost of shelter before decommissioning: $73M

The shelters were placed at nursing homes across the province during the height of the pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021, with the province promising to cover all operational costs for the homes.

The total project for the visitation shelters — which also included 57 interior pods — ended up costing the government almost $73 million in capital and operational costs, according to a government spokesperson.

This doesn't include the cost of removing the pods.

While less than the projected $85 million cost due to lower than forecast operational costs, the total tally was far more than the $18 million first announced by then-Health Minister Cameron Friesen.

Gage Haubrich, the Prairie Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the best option is one that benefits government coffers.

"It's probably a better idea to just take the safer option and get some cash for these projects and then hopefully have the net cost to the taxpayers be lower than it needs to be," he said.

University of Winnipeg
University of Winnipeg

Jino Distasio, a professor of urban geography at University of Winnipeg, said he walks by one of the shelters in his neighbourhood everyday and wonders about their future.

He said a shipping container is versatile, and he's seen many ways they've been repurposed over the years. Using it for housing could be an option, if done properly.

"We want to make sure that if it does turn into housing, that it is safe and appropriate to place somebody in there, meaning there's enough windows … the ability to run electrical and ventilation and certainly plumbing," he said.

Little use after restrictions lifted

In a letter to Health Minister Audrey Gordon in February, Kinew pointed to a concerns brought up by management at a Winnipeg nursing home. Management — who did not want to be interviewed for this story — told Kinew the pods were currently not being used and there was no timeline for when they would be removed. Kinew urged Gordon to do something with the units.

Randall McKenzie/CBC
Randall McKenzie/CBC

Kinew called the whole project a boondoggle, and said the possibility of seeing these shelters end up in the scrap heap just adds an "exclamation mark" to the situation.

"We have urgent issues around housing, social challenges and seniors' care in the province," Kinew said.

"Can we find a way … instead of sending these to the salvage yard, salvage some kind of public good from the investment that's already been made?"

The expression of interest says all interested bidders must submit their proposals by March 21.

WATCH | Outdoor visitation shelters built from shipping containers: