Mitch Bourbonniere, a community leader and founding member of Winnipeg's Bear Clan Patrol, knows Winnipeg in a way that can only come from spending time on its streets, and in its encampments.
"I'm literally walking the streets of downtown and Main Street and inner-city every day."
He takes an authenticity, and warmth, with him on those walks. He builds relationship, hears the voices of Winnipeg's most vulnerable and struggling citizens, and works to raise those voices up.
In October, Mitch shared some of his knowledge during an online discussion panel Homelessness: Supporting our Unsheltered Relatives. He spoke about changes he's seen, and what he believes can lift up our unsheltered relatives.
He thinks homelessness has doubled or tripled since the 2018 street census pegged it at 1,500. The pandemic has affected the unsheltered by driving or shutting them out of warm places—coffee shops, walkways, the library—and causing the "phenomenon of the bus shelters" to explode.
"Those bus shelters are symbolic, you know, they're glass, you can see through them, you can see the folks in there on those nights, huddled...basically in misery and it's heart-wrenching. It impacts everyone."
Encampments have also grown with the pandemic, and he says no waterway in Winnipeg is without them, on both banks. "There's hundreds, hundreds of camps, and it's not just the inner-city...we get calls from Charleswood, we get calls from Transcona, South St. Vital, North Main."
Some people choose to be where they are. They find community, which needs to be created in better places.
Some struggle with mental health. But drug consumption, Mitch says, is the main factor. A person cannot maintain a home while addicted.
"There are predators in this city that are living off the misery of the people and there are folks that don't want to be where they are, and they're in a very dark place."
The province needs to add more Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine (RAAM) clinics to help people escape addiction, and keep them open longer. Currently two RAAM locations in Winnipeg are open just two hours a day, two or three days a week. People line up hours before they open, he says, and a couple of people at the front of the line get seen. The rest are sent away.
More housing is also needed, but must be supportive. People overcoming drug addiction and mental illness require people onsite to coach, to teach, to support and keep them safe.
Mitch sees a kind of three-ring model already working to help some unsheltered people, but says it needs more people and money invested in it.
Ring one is immediate services—getting people fed, clothed and sheltered in a safe place.
Ring two is navigators—people doing outreach and building relationship and paths from the homeless to needed services.
Ring three is supportive housing and addictions treatment.
Together, the rings form a ladder of support for people wanting to leave the street and be housed. And find what everyone wants.
"People are just looking to be safe and be in community."
Sean Ledwich, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Leaf