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As the pandemic’s second wave digs in, Winnipeg’s homeless shelters brace for a bleak winter

Manitoba is struggling to contain a renewed surge of the COVID-19 pandemic by reimposing restrictions on businesses and public gatherings in Winnipeg and other parts of the province.

“We need to focus on going out for only essential reasons,” said Manitoba’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin on Friday. “Protect yourself. Keep your distance from others.”

But self-isolating is simply not an option for the homeless and many other members of vulnerable communities, or for the agencies that offer food and shelter to those who aren’t always able to fend for themselves.

At 1JustCity, which runs three community drop-in centres in Winnipeg’s downtown core, the pandemic has led to a growing number of people needing food, a shower or just a place to stay warm.

“We push out over 2,000 meals every week,” the agency’s executive director, Tessa Whitecloud, said in an interview airing Saturday on CBC’s The House. “We’re seeing a big increase in numbers. We’re seeing more people being food insecure, of course, as layoffs and different things make it more difficult for them to feed themselves in the ways that they used to.”

Kristi Beaune said the situation is much the same at the North End Women’s Centre, which offers a wide range of supports for women in the community, including a drop-in space, parenting advice and transitional housing.

CBC News: The House10:40The weight of COVID-19 in Winnipeg

As COVID-19 cases spike in Manitoba, community outreach leaders Tessa Whitecloud and Kristi Beaune talk about how the pandemic is affecting some of the most vulnerable people in the province’s capital. 10:40

A pandemic compounded by poverty

“We are all experiencing this pandemic together, and the folks that access our services are facing that pandemic with those compounding factors of homelessness, the rising risk of overdose and those escalating situations of domestic violence and being trapped at home,” Beaune, spokesperson for the centre, told The House.

“Those issues have not taken a back seat.”

Manitoba considered imposing a curfew in Winnipeg after a spike in cases among young people linked to late-night gatherings and parties. Premier Brian Pallister has opted against the move for now, in favour of stricter enforcement of existing restrictions.

“There will be consequences for people when they put others in danger, when they put themselves in danger,” Pallister told a briefing on Thursday.

The number of COVID-related deaths in Manitoba climbed to 96 on Friday. Health officials also announced another 243 new cases of the virus as the rate of positive tests reached more than 9 per cent.

Whitecloud said she understands stricter measures need to be taken to try to slow down the spread of COVID-19, but cautioned that a curfew could amount to criminalizing the homeless.

“So, you know, it’s great if you want to make sure that I’m home by 10 o’clock. But if you don’t have a home, it’s not OK to then insist that people have to figure that out. Some shelters don’t open until 11 p.m.,” she said.

“So if the curfew is married with an initiative to make sure that everybody has somewhere to be that’s safe COVID-wise, that’s safe in terms of substance abuse or, you know, domestic violence … then great. But if it isn’t paired with the initiatives that are going to address the inequalities that a curfew would further exacerbate, then I think that’s a problem about human rights.”

Homelessness as a public health issue

It’s clear across Canada that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on marginalized people.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs raised similar concerns about a curfew, saying it would have a punishing effect on Indigenous people living in urban centres.

In Toronto, public health statistics show that 83 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases are among people of colour.

Beaune and Whitecloud noted the federal government’s recently announced Rapid Housing Initiative — a $1 billion program to cover the cost of building modular housing and converting existing buildings like motels into affordable housing.

“I’m hoping that we see more of that grow because we need to recognize that one person’s experience of homelessness is actually a public health issue for everybody in the city that that person resides in,” Whitecloud said.

homeless camp fire
Smoke billows from a fire at a homeless encampment on Austin Street in Winnipeg on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Winnipeg’s share of the program is $12.5 million dollars.

“There’s just not enough transitional housing in and around Winnipeg and that’s something that we knew before,” Beaune added.

“COVID certainly shone a light on it even further … I mean, we have eight beds of transitional housing here. If we were funded in that way, we could easily accommodate 25, 40 women just in our immediate area that could really benefit from stable housing.”

The approach of winter makes the need to address homelessness and other challenges posed by the pandemic even more urgent.

The good news is that many private donors are stepping up in Winnipeg to provide masks, meals and other goods. One donor provided 50 pizzas a day to the North End Women’s Centre throughout the first wave of the virus — a program Beaune and Whitecloud are working to set up again for the coming months.

“It’s empowering because of the support of people rallying around us to do these things for the folks who need it,” Whitecloud said. “But it’s going to be a nerve-wracking winter.”

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