Winnipeg can solve homelessness. Just build the housing!
A few weeks ago, the Downtown Biz once again sponsored the CEO Sleep out for the homeless. For a few short hours, Winnipeg’s decision makers – or a small percentage of them – curled up in their down- filled sleeping bags and imagined themselves roughing it in support of those who have no home.
Some of us just showed up for the party and went home to our warm beds because it was a particularly bitter night. How lucky we are.
For those who don’t have that option, though, the prospect of another winter hoping to find a space in a shelter on the coldest nights and braving the weather during the day must be daunting. The thought of standing on a street corner to beg for a few coins to get a meal is another unthinkable thing for most of us. But for a few, it is a necessity. Did you know that if you don’t have an address, you can’t get welfare? For some, the Main Street Project provides that service, but the newly indigent may not have figured that out yet.
In spite of the fact that we have eight shelters (including those for youth and abused women) with 549 beds, those who are intoxicated at their time of need are not welcome at the two largest, the Salvation Army or Siloam Mission. So some homeless people freeze to death pretty much every year. The “lucky” ones who are intoxicated will find their way to the old pickle factory near the Disraeli Bridge where the Main Street Project struggles to accommodate these most destitute of the destitute on thin mats lined up head to toe on the floor. On the worst nights, a number end up in the halls – it’s better than being outside.
In 2014, a blue ribbon Task Force, established by the United Way, published a comprehensive report called End Homelessness in Winnipeg. In the Task Force report, a target was set to reduce the number of people needing shelter by 2016/2017 by 20 percent and to continue to reduce that number by 10 per cent a year. There would be a one-stop drop in centre for people living on the street. The projected the addition of 300 affordable housing units would be available by 2016/2017.
As a result, End Homelessness Winnipeg as an ongoing initiative was established in 2015 with a $1.275 million budget. On its board is a very knowledgeable and serious group of people representing some of our finest agencies, including the chief funder, the United Way, as well as the WRHA, the City of Winnipeg and Manitoba Housing. The board members are good, sincere people. Yet somehow, the energy that went into the excellent 2014 Task Force report seems to have dissipated. Perhaps the board should revisit the original Task Force plan of action and get back on track, because, according to their website, End Homelessness Winnipeg have concluded that, in spite of all the previous studies and reports, “Collectively, we don’t know much about homelessness in Winnipeg.”
To the contrary, we actually do know a lot. We know that there are just under 500 people who have no shelter at all, two-thirds of whom live on the streets. We know that we have eight shelters in the city with 549 beds, but two of the big three won’t let you in if you are intoxicated. We know that there is a shortage of rental units and that the average rent for a one-bedroom unit is about $836 a month with a vacancy rate of about three per cent. We know that there is a vacancy rate of 4.7% for units renting at about $500 a month. We know that social assistance only pays $595 a month (for those who qualify to receive it). We know that the homeless can have a hard time adjusting to a home, that many are addicted or mentally ill and that a few are just going through a really bad time in their lives, not that the reasons matter that much when it comes to getting warm. We know that there is an immediate need for those 300 units – and more.
What else do we need to know? Millions have been spent studying the issue yet we seem no closer to a solution. Why the paralysis? Put the money into the building the housing first and find the support to maintain it. Look for ways to prevent it once everyone is tucked in somewhere.
The poor are not going away and no matter what we do, we will not be able to resolve all the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness. But we do need to provide a safe place to live for those who cannot cope. Let’s just do it. How can we otherwise hold up our heads as Manitobans?