In 2016, the State of Homelessness in Canada reported that roughly 235,000 individuals experience homelessness per year; however, that number varies due to those who do not use emergency shelters.
Discussions around unhoused encampments—outdoor spaces independent from the shelter system—have increased since COVID-19 made shelters less safe for clients. But encampment spaces aren’t always safe either.
This past February, two separate encampment fires occurred in two Canadian cities only a day apart. On February 16th, 2021, a man was found dead after the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service extinguished a fire at a temporary wooden structure located in a well-known homeless encampment on Higgins Ave.
Toronto’s fire crews had a similar experience less than 24 hours later.
Both instances were preventable, and experts say they highlight issues surrounding accessible housing that cities across the country are still trying to address.
While cities around the country have struggled to make housing more accessible in the face of growing inequities and COVID-19 precautions, some municipalities are lagging behind, forcing independent organizations to lead the way.
Winnipeg organizations step up
When comparing four western Canadian cities—Edmonton, Saskatoon, Medicine Hat, and Winnipeg—Medicine Hat has the most success in ending chronic homelessness. The city’s achievement came from coordinated access, a by-name list, centralized intake, and systems planning.
Meanwhile, Winnipeg’s number of counted homeless individuals is the highest compared to its overall population.
Winnipeg’s Community Task Force to End Homelessness formed End Homelessness Winnipeg in May 2015. Lissie Rappaport, the manager of housing supply at End Homelessness Winnipeg, told The Pigeon founding members felt the need for an organization whose sole purpose is to ensure the homeless population has a voice.
“End Homelessness Winnipeg serves as the backbone organization for the whole homeless serving sector,” she said. “We’re bringing sectors together—bringing government community agencies, private sector, and community together.”
When Winnipeg’s Community Task Force to End Homelessness created End Homelessness Winnipeg, it also created a ten-year plan to decrease the number of people living on the streets and continue to support them even after they’ve found housing.
“Permanent housing is a person’s first and foremost need,” task force members wrote in a 2014 report, “Once a person is safely housed, then other needs can begin to be addressed.”
In 2019, End Homelessness Winnipeg announced an additional five-year plan based on data and reflections from the organization’s earlier work.
The plan has seven key targets. Some of their target goals are to create 1,340 additional housing units, house 1,519 people experiencing homelessness, and reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in shelters by 50 per cent.
Rappaport told The Pigeon those goals are still in sight, but compounding factors have made support for unhoused residents more urgent than ever.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed most restaurants and public buildings, reduced shelter capacity, and presented new health barriers. This made the Manitoba winter extremely challenging and resulted in people having to sleep in bus shelters across the city.
“This whole network of indoor spaces that people rely on to stay warm throughout the day and night in the central area was entirely shut down,” Rappaport remembered. “It’s definitely emphasized what’s really needed—permanent housing solutions—and that housing is healthcare.”
New initiatives take root
Thanks to the community task force, End Homelessness Winnipeg, and a number of local organizations, a new project was recently announced to help a small portion of Winnipeg’s unhoused population find permanent housing.
The Village Project, which will soon be renamed at an upcoming naming ceremony, is a communal housing development on traditional land made up of 22 units built from recycled shipping containers. The project is led by Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and supported by six local Indigenous organizations helping to support the homeless population in the city.
“We approached an elders circle and then went directly to people who were living in encampments to ask what kind of housing they needed and wanted. The designs for the housing came directly from those needs,” Melissa Stone, an outreach worker for Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg, told The Pigeon in an interview.
The development will provide shelter to Indigenous Manitobans who are currently experiencing homelessness. Indigenous people make up almost 80 per cent of the city’s unhoused population, according to the Winnipeg Street Census 2018 report.
Most of these projects involve living in a communal setting with community gardens and group use areas, with access to separate living spaces.
“The idea of tiny homes and living communally came from how people are currently living in encampments,” Stone said.
Other cities set the standard
Winnipeg may be behind other cities when it comes to supporting unhoused populations, but its community organizations have drawn inspiration from the success stories of other municipalities.
Rappaport and Stone said their plans for temporary modular housing came from initiatives taking place in Vancouver. The group of organizations in Winnipeg looked into building housing quickly and on pre-existing land in the city, something that’s been accomplished already in the western municipality.
The 2019 Homeless Count in Vancouver showed more than 2,200 people did not have a home, and 28 per cent of those residents were unsheltered. In response, the city has been building temporary modular housing. This low-cost, high-impact housing solution has allowed the city to quickly house those in need. Residents are also given supports like life skills training and connections to health and social services.
The residents in these homes have access to two meals a day and opportunities to connect with social events, volunteer, and join various community groups.
“Privacy is definitely important to people, but also being able to access interdependence and community support is really integral to this model,” Rappaport said.
Although Vancouver noticed a five per cent decrease in its homeless population from 2019 to 2020, they partially attribute this to survey fatigue, not increased housing.
Of the unhoused people counted, the 2020 survey found the top three causes for loss of housing were lack of housing and financial-related issues, interpersonal and family issues, and health or corrections-related issues. Winnipeg advocates say their city’s story is slightly different.
“I would say family and situational changes are often the cause for homelessness, as well as addictions, substance use, or medical or mental health challenges,” Rappaport said.
Edmonton saw similar issues in 2016. It claimed 24 per cent of respondents considered addiction or substance use a contributor to their homelessness. Due to the stigma associated with both mental health and addictions, the city believes this number is underrepresented in its survey.
According to its 2016 Homeless Count, 48 per cent of Edmonton’s homeless population identifies as being Indigenous. Like Winnipeg, where nearly 66 per cent of unhoused people are Indigenous, Edmonton reports that colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and residential schools are major factors in the rates of homelessness for Indigenous residents.
“We see these issues as all being interconnected and being an indirect cause of homelessness,” Rappaport explained.
Looking beyond emergency shelters
At the end of May, another housing project was announced. 47 micro-apartments, each measuring 220 square feet, will be built in Winnipeg, with 15 specifically designed to be more accessible.
The apartment complex will offer mental health and addiction supports as well as recovery staff onsite to help the community. The project is a partnership between all forms of government and The Pollard family’s Home First Winnipeg charity.
Advocates said these innovative housing concepts are a step above the shelter system.
“What we need is to look at building safe, affordable homes for folks, instead of just letting them stay at shelters,” Stone said.
She stated the City of Winnipeg has been giving more funds to shelters during the pandemic, but said it isn’t enough.
In a news release from 2020, the Manitoba Government announced it was investing $1.5 million to support Winnipeg’s homeless shelters in response to COVID-19 concerns. Purchased with this money were 100 additional overnight shelter beds, isolation spaces for individuals suspected of having COVID-19, and a daytime drop-in program at Main Street Project to help individuals find more stable housing.
These funds are necessary for the shelters to continue to support people during the pandemic. Still, it isn’t enough to reduce the number of people on the streets. Advocates like Stone say in order to permanently reduce homelessness in Winnipeg, the city needs to look towards new kinds of housing.
“Shelters aren’t homes—they are places for people to crash, eat, and leave in the morning,” Stone said. “It’s not stopping the homelessness issue. It’s just putting a band-aid on it.”