Significant strides made in helping Winnipeg's homeless, despite COVID challenges

·3 min read

One year after a strategy to combat and better understand homelessness in Winnipeg was launched, the program’s creators say they have made some significant strides in helping this city’s unsheltered, while also dealing with new challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One year ago, End Homelessness Winnipeg announced the release of Kíkininaw Óma – A Strategy to Support Unsheltered Winnipeggers.

“The origins of the strategy go back to June 2019 when End Homelessness Winnipeg facilitated a gathering of community stakeholders to share ideas on how to support people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and staying in encampments,” End Homelessness Winnipeg communications and community relations manager Kristiana Clemens said on Friday.

Clemens said that soon after the meeting the organization held another meeting with stakeholders, but this time the meeting also included City of Winnipeg staff, including representatives from Community Services, Public Works, and Winnipeg Police Service, to establish an “interim strategy for engaging with temporary encampments.”

At that meeting, City of Winnipeg staff requested a single point of contact for connecting calls made to 311 or police with appropriate outreach services, and Main Street Project proposed to be that first point of contact.

“All agreed that police should be called in emergencies only, rather than as a first point of contact for those who are unsheltered,” Clemens said.

The group began to meet regularly, and in June of 2020 the Kíkinanaw Óma Strategy was released based around the core goals of connecting those who are unsheltered with communities, educating, training, and speaking out against stigma, and developing a “shared understanding and work through a lens of harm reduction.”

Clemens said an important aspect of the strategy is education.

“The first section of the strategy offers information drawn from research on unsheltered homelessness in Canada and Winnipeg, providing statistics, demographic information, and findings on the causes of unsheltered homelessness,” she said.

Despite the strategy being implemented during the days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Winnipeg, Clemens said there has been some great success and progress made in the last year.

“Rapid progress has been made on some of the strategy’s recommendations,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has increased urgency for addressing homelessness and building broad awareness that housing is health care.

“Outreach services have expanded and work in ever-closer collaboration, supported by strong relationships with first responders, when significant safety hazards or emergencies arise.

“The strategy means that trained and peer outreach workers, rather than police, are the first point of contact for people who are unsheltered, which supports improved connections to needed services, and a rights-based approach to unsheltered homelessness.”

But she added health restrictions brought on by the pandemic have created challenges for people looking for shelter, as well as for organization looking to assist or take in people needing a place to stay.

“Health concerns added to barriers some people face in accessing emergency shelters, and as many alternate sheltering options like sleeping in public places or at the homes of acquaintances, friends or family were restricted under public health orders.” Clemens said.

With the housing market in Winnipeg seeing rising home costs, Clemens said she worries that more issues involving the homeless will arise in the city because of a lack of affordable housing, and she hopes the city will start to work on more strategies for dealing with the issue.

“There are nearly 40,000 Winnipeg households in core housing need, meaning that their housing is unaffordable, overcrowded, or in need of costly repairs. All these households can be considered at-risk of homelessness, and many are just one cheque, conflict, or accident away,” Clemens said.

“To support a sustainable and effective COVID-19 recovery, it is critical that Winnipeg addresses the gaps in low-income, low-barrier, supportive and Indigenous-led housing supply for singles and for larger families over the next few years.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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