I have looked into the abyss of Winnipeg’s homeless and have seen the bottom. It is horrifying.
Spread across the floor of a stifling room were 70 or so people sleeping, snoring, lying quietly, on 2-inch deep mats laid side by side, end to end. You would have to tread very carefully to avoid stepping on a fellow sleeper should you have a need to get up for the bathroom in the dead of night. One or two sat up, heads down in dejection, unable to sleep or awakened by the trudging parade through their overnight home.
I cannot lose the vision, the horrifying spectacle of those folk, lying there exposed, no blankets, in their day clothes, safe for the night so they could sleep without fear, only to face the prospect of having nowhere to go the following morning, except to endlessly troll the streets or find a grassy place near the river or in some park. Imagine it was winter and minus 30. You have to keep moving, I was told, or you’ll freeze to death.
Nobody should have to live like this.
This is not good enough! We can do better.
The CEO Sleepout
I joined the crowd of Winnipeg business people at the CEO Sleepout this year thinking it might make an interesting story and because I believe that homelessness is unforgivable. After what I saw, I can only say that if we want to hold our heads up with any pride, if we want to regard ourselves as decent human beings, we have to do something more to eradicate it.
It was a fine September night. There was an air of excitement around the plaza at 201 Portage, the lights of the big screen casting a cheery glow over the faces of eager over-nighters taking selfies and tweeting their experience. There were endless speeches about the event and why people wanted to be involved – all well-meaning and sincere, all heart-felt but none of the speeches prepared us for what was to come.
The crowd was divided into three groups of people to take a variety of tours of the places where homeless people find shelter: I chose the Red Road Lodge and the Main Street Project, which included the Bell Hotel.
It was ten o’clock before we started out, walking for several blocks in a whited-t-shirted group strung out along Main Street. Our first stop was the Red Road Lodge, formerly the New Occidental Hotel. It offers transition housing to those emerging from hospital. They can continue their recovery here instead of returning to a sleep under a bridge. It is only a transitioning space, however, where efforts are made to help individuals find long term solutions such as employment and permanent housing. Studio 631, an urban art centre is part of the facility. It provides classroom, library and arts and culture programming. The tortured works of its students occupy the walls of a small gallery.
I spoke to one resident who told me that he and his brother had been taken from his family and adopted out to an American family when they were boys. He had been to college and served in the military, but something drew him back to Winnipeg where now he is one of the homeless, temporarily rescued by the project where he has been treated with respect and caring. He has been sober now for 17 months, he said. I couldn’t ask where he would go from here.
The Main Street project
We were then taken across an alley to 75 Market Street, a refurbished warehouse that has been the home to the Main Street Project since 1972. This is the only place in Winnipeg that will take in intoxicated or substance using homeless people. “We have a very low barrier here,” states Lisa Goss, the executive director. “We are not here to judge.”
In addition to the overnight emergency shelter, the Main Street Project offers medically supervised detoxification, some day care, transitional housing through their Mainstay transitional housing program and permanent housing though the Bell Hotel. The shelter, which has been around for 43 years does all this on a budget of $5.5 million a year. A program that helped some people learn very basic life skills (how to have a shower, make toast, wash their clothing) ran out of funding last March; it’s a never-ending game of find the next dollar to provide the most minimal support.
But all these things are dry facts that don’t impart the kind of urgency I felt as I saw folks struggling with life: to live it, to maintain it, to see more in it than simple terror about what the next unpredictable moment could hold: what will I eat? Where can I get warm? Where will I sleep? How do I keep safe? No wonder the next thought for many is, “Where do I get my next drink, drug, sniff – anything to transport me from this reality?”
Outside the shelter, a half dozen people in varying states of sobriety lingered, knowing that eventually a warm place to sleep could be found here. They were curious about the interlopers making good-natured comments as we trooped by. I was embarrassed. Inside, a couple of people mopped floors and did general cleaning – “members” who had been encouraged to help by Lisa and who were making a place for themselves in the system. Lisa led us through the halls to the tiny kitchen where the gas stove no longer functions without the encouragement of a lit piece of paper, and then she opened the doors and took us through the “bedroom”.
“I’m not sure we should go in there,” said a woman beside me as Lisa asked us to be quiet as many were asleep inside.
“We have to see this,” I said grimly, somehow knowing that we had to see this. As we trooped though, I was seized by sadness and grief. People asleep are so vulnerable, so open to danger. So helpless. I could see that others were shaken too. A heaviness fell on us. It was a silent group that emerged on the other side.
After that, the tiny rooms of the Bell Hotel seemed like luxury, although each was too small to “swing a cat” as my Dad would have said. They have some critical things: a real bed, a table and chair, a place to put a few belongings, a microwave and a small fridge and a bathroom to wash in. Most of all, they had a roof overhead and a door that locked. Surely, this should be the minimum standard, not the warehouse floor covered with plastic mats.
The people who work in the project are truly heroes in my eyes. To deal with this sadness every day and to do so while imparting a sense of hope and possibility to the people they are helping must be very difficult. As the Main Street Project annual Report says, though, they work with their “clients” as individuals, according them full respect and without judgement.
The Project is the only agency that lets people in regardless of whether or not they are “high” only something. They don’t lecture or coerce, but they are there when someone says ‘Enough, help me find a different path’.
“Do you think people don’t care?” asked Lisa, when I talked to her after we had returned from the tour. Her question was genuine. “I’m sure they do,” I said. “Or at least, they would if they knew.” And I truly believe that o you, my dear reads. If you could see this, you could not be unmoved. These are caring, loving. Living human beings and they shouldn’t be living like this in a land of such bounty. Think of Faron Hall, how he was willing to sacrifice his life to save that of another. Think of how ill equipped he was to live a “normal” life and how he slipped away from us when all eyes were turned on him. We don’t know why and we don’t have to know why. We just need to understand that sometimes some folks don’t manage very well and that they need our support and uncritical assistance.
We can do better. And we must.
Where do we go from here? There can be only one direction: we must put an end to this and create safe homes for these people. We can do this if we will it. It is time to stop pointing to the other guy, the government, the agencies, the politicians and saying “you should do something”. We have to do it together.
It is also time for other agencies to stop jealously hugging themselves when this issue comes up – sure there is competition for funding, but it is not about you or your pet project. This is about real people who the most fundamental supports. All agencies must band together to make this happen instead of elbowing the weakest and most vulnerable out of the way.
Why do I say this? Because each time I have mentioned my concern to a representative of one of these agencies, the response has varied form defensive to hostile. As if dealing with homelessness at this level was somehow a threat to them.