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I have looked into the abyss of Winnipeg’s homeless and have seen the bottom. It is horrifying.


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. Tis is not good enough! We can do better. Te CEO Sleepout

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. Te Main Street project

We were then taken across an alley to 75

Bold Ideas Dorothy Dobbie

I joined the crowd of Winnipeg business people at the

CEO Sleepout this year thinking it might make an inter- esting 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. Tere was an air of excite-

ment 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 experi- ence. Tere 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. Te 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. Tey can con- tinue 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 program- ming. Te tortured works of its students occupy the walls of a small gallery.

Market Street, a refurbished warehouse that has been the home to the Main Street Project since 1972. Tis is the only place in Winnipeg that will take in intoxicated or substance using homeless people. “We have a very low barrier here,” sates Lisa Goss, the executive director. “We are not here to judge.” In addition to the overnight emergency

shelter, the Main Street Project offers medi- cally supervised detoxification, some day

care, transitional housing through their Mainstay transi- tional housing program and permanent housing though the Bell Hotel. Te shelter, which has been around for 43 years does all this on a budget of $5.5 million a year. A pro- gram 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. Tey 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. Lis 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 be-

side 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. Tey 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. Te 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. Te Project is the only agency that lets people in regard-

less of whether or not they are “high” only something. Tey 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. Tese are caring, loving. Living human beings and they shouldn’t be living like this in a land of such bounty. Tink of Faron Hall, how he was willing to sacrifice his life to save that of another. Tink 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? Tere can be only one direc-

tion: 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 hug-

ging themselves when this issue comes up – sure there is competition for funding, but it is not about you or your pet project. Tis is about real people who the most fun- damental 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.

Grow downtowns, they are central to Canada’s economic prosperity


ising national debt, infrastructure def icits that seem insurmount- able, ballooning healthcare costs,

the need for jobs, escalating poverty and homelessness, spiralling costs of living, and our fragile environment, are all national challenges and should be topics of discussion. These issues will no doubt be highlighted during the federal election. We will hear dozens of solutions and policy statements, financial commit- ments, and promises made. But what if there was one an- swer, a silver bullet to put our country back on track towards greater sustainabi l ity and prosperity? Urban centres. A group of downtown prac-

Downtown Stefano Grande

titioners and organizations including the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, through a national coalition called Downtowns Canada, recently assessed the values of ur- ban centres in Canada. With new research gathered, we’ve confirmed our belief in the importance of downtowns – they serve not

4 Smart Biz

only an iconic purpose but are economic engines for Canada’s economy. To many, Canada’s urban centres are seen as the place where history began – where trade and com- merce first took place, where immigrants first settled, and where banks first set up shop. They are centres of employ- ment, produce the greatest GDP, and home to some of the most powerful corporations in the world. Tey are places of culture, arts, sports, entertain- ment, events, and more. Tey are the city’s gathering spots. Te emerging concentration of density and mixed-use build- ings interspersed with history, parks, and incredible places to hangout is the key to these

economic engines. Downtowns are huge tourism drivers as

well, attracting tourists and convention- goers from around the world, because of their unique history, vibrancy and density of hotels, and convention centre spaces. Tis creates new business and jobs.

Downtowns are places of higher learning that produce many well-rounded entre- preneurs and professionals who are more engrained in the day-to-day life of a city. Tere is not a greater place where creativ- ity and ingenuity exists in a place than in downtowns. Downtowns and urban centres are small

in size, some as small as 1% of a city’s total land size, but yet can generate up to 25% of a city’s tax base. Tey are very efficient, generating more taxes per hectare than any other neighbourhood. Tey are very walkable. People who live downtown and in dense urban centres rely on cars less and tend to be healthier because they walk, bike or take transit to work, shop, and play. Increased active living also means less carbon emissions, less reliance on gas and cars, and a more preventative health care approach to life. Te cost of food, ser- vices, and housing is not declining. Urban residents tend to be more tolerant and accepting because downtowns are also home to poverty and homelessness as well. Immigrants and people of all walks of life and socioeconomic status are found here. Downtown is a place where everyone liv-

ing together in a welcoming homogenous community. And the opportunities to grow on these

strengths are more realistic now than ever. Preserving our history and retrofitting older buildings is not only great for our environment, but builds in the formula for growth and jobs. City infrastructure already exists in these incredible places – why build new infrastructure in an era where taxpayers can’t afford it? Opportu- nities to revitalize underutilized build- ings, reclaim valuable waterfront lands, eliminate surface parking lots, from coast to coast, are significant and can generate a greater return on public investment and grow these engines strategically. A lack of federal attention on downtowns only work to safeguard and subsidize neighbour- hoods that don’t belong to everyone. In an age of serious national issues and

challenges and a debt crisis, we need more vibrant and fully revitalized downtowns and urban centres. Prosperity of our country lies in federal government action that is focused on sustaining and growing the economic engines of our country, our downtowns and urban centres.

November 2015

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