Main Street Project patrol van will keep rolling thanks to funding boost

Main Street Project's mobile outreach van will continue patrolling Winnipeg's streets looking for people at risk in extreme weather, thanks to a major funding boost.

The van, which was out of commission for six years because of a lack of funding, was put back on the road last December after a 53-year-old woman died on a bitterly cold night. It operated with $35,000 in funding from the Downtown BIZ, but didn't have longer-term funding until now.

Executive director Rick Lees says Main Street Project recently got approval from the city for a $126,000 annual grant for the next two years.

He says the money will be used to hire people specifically for the van patrol, and he's thrilled the application through the federally-funded Homelessness Partnering Strategy went through so quickly.

"I think vulnerable people freezing on the street resonated with Winnipeggers. We can all relate to someone who is on the street in 30 below," Lees said.

"I am pretty proud of the people in this city. I have always said they have a big heart and the ability to do the right thing. These projects can take a long time to fund, and even working in times of constraint, it was seen as something the city wanted to get behind."

Lees says when the van went back on the road last December, it was funded by anonymous donors and $20,000 from the United Way. Now it will operate 100 days a year over the next two years, both in the extreme cold and the extreme heat.

Rescued hundreds

Lees credits workers with downtown Winnipeg Biz CHAT team and the van patrol with rescuing hundreds of vulnerable people in the freezing cold this winter — people who were found in stairways, under bridges and along riverbanks.

Some didn't want to be picked up and taken to the Project's shelter, and instead chose to sleep in the cold. Lees says in those cases, workers would provide blankets, food and coffee and check on them regularly.

"One of our staff checked on someone 20 times in one night after giving them a blanket and clothing," he said. "They were thankful someone was checking on them. Their wishes were being respected while they were being kept safe." 

Another worker found a man in his early 20s with no shoes and socks, wearing a T-shirt standing at a street corner. Lees says the man was totally disoriented. When he was picked up, it was determined he was battling addiction to crystal meth. He was taken to hospital.

Moving forward

Lees says the first order of business will be to establish guidelines on which 100 days the van will be out on the streets.

He plans to do that with partners Siloam Mission and the Salvation Army. He says some cities have a cold-weather policy for similar patrols, like Toronto, where a patrol van is deployed when temperatures drop to around –10 or –20 C.  

Another city opens up air conditioned centres in the summer when the temperature climbs over 30 C with high humidity, Lees said. He plans to look to other cities to come up with a baseline for Main Street Project's van patrol.

He said he's also approaching other organizations to get funding to keep the van on the road 365 days a year. He wants to build a year-round program that would include both case and transition workers in the vehicle, and hopes eventually they can work as an outreach team for opiate addicts on Winnipeg's streets.