Robert was recovering from frostbite on both feet at a pop-up St. Boniface Street Links warming space over the weekend, after spending hours outside Friday in freezing temperatures while high on meth.
“If it weren’t for the organization, I, well, I might be dead for one thing.”
Global News isn’t providing Robert’s full name to protect his identity. He’s been struggling with addictions, bipolar disorder and homelessness for years.
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Robert says he doesn’t feel safe in shelters or on the street. He’s looking for a place to call his own but knows he can’t be alone.
“One of the reasons that I think I and others have been drawn back into to addiction and homelessness is ironically, because we are looking for connections to our community,” he said.
His desire for community is common, and Breda Vosters and Talia Potash with Resource Assistance for Youth (RAY) say many find it in encampments.
“The crux of the issue for us, though, is will they stay housed?” Vosters, RAY’s grants and information director, told Global News on Thursday.
Community should be considered in transitioning people into housing, Vosters said.
“Taking individuals from encampments and placing them into one-bedroom apartments in an area of the city they’re not familiar with doesn’t work,” said Potash, who serves as RAY’s housing director.
Winnipeg already has great examples that work, including The Bell Hotel on Main St., Potash said. It offers 42 independent suites with around-the-clock cultural and health supports.
“Crises happen, and they don’t necessarily happen between nine and five,” she said.
Kate Sjoberg with Main Street Project oversees the building, which takes a Housing First approach. Residents aren’t required to be sober or have a job.
The City of Winnipeg’s arms-length development corporation CentreVenture bought the property in 2007. In partnership with Main Street Project and other municipal, provincial and federal departments and initiatives, The Bell Hotel reopened as supporting housing in 2011.
The community atmosphere encourages them to reach out to supports when they need it, Sjoberg said.
“It’s really clear to me in talking to people who are in those kind of edge times, maybe there’s been a crisis in the family or a change in their own health where they’re like, ‘No, like I need to stay here, and so I’m willing to work with you on figuring out what I’m going to need to do to be successful,” she said.
Yet few other places like The Bell have opened since its launch more than a decade ago.
“We need five or 10 Bell Hotels in this city,” Potash said.
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The number of unsheltered Winnipeggers is only going to grow as the supply of affordable and public housing shrinks, Sjoberg said.
“As much as the private sector can step up, that’s really important, but the volume that we need is going to be achieved through major investments of dollars, and that’s going to have to come from the public sector,” she said.
Potash and Sjoberg are looking to all levels of government for more funding to cover projects and subsidize housing.
Manitoba’s homelessness strategy will be released in the coming months, and providing housing with supports will make up a part of that plan, a spokesperson for Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Janice Morley-Lecomte said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
“Housing First is and will continue to be part of the housing continuum,” they said.
The province gives ongoing support to the Bell Hotel and recently provided St. Boniface Street Links with $215,000 for its outreach team, the spokesperson said.
“The province has also provided funding for Home First Winnipeg, which will soon open another project in Winnipeg that uses a Housing First model.
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Ottawa acknowledges it’s getting harder for Canadians to afford a place to live, a spokesperson with the Office of the Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion told Global News Tuesday.
The federal government has already provided $228 million for affordable housing in Winnipeg, which translates into more than 6,200 units, including through its Rapid Housing Initiative and Reaching Home Program, they said.
“We recently launched our $1.5 billion third round of the Rapid Housing Initiative, including millions … dedicated … to Winnipeg,” they added. “Projects funded through this program will be constructed rapidly, within 12 to 18 months of when funding is provided.”
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Direct rent assistance through the Canada Housing Benefit will also help people in this city, they added.
“Nearly 2 million renters across the country, including 64,000 households in Manitoba, who are struggling with the cost of housing can now apply for a direct federal $500 one-time top-up to the Canada Housing Benefit,” they continued. “We are also committed to tackling excessive profits from investment properties and introducing measures to end ‘renovictions.’”
Meanwhile, Robert said he hopes a more connected system that embraces a person’s need for both community and independence could be on the horizon.
“We are collectively paying a price, you know, whether it’s, you know, money spent on ERs and police response or in loss of life,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way.”
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