Advocates for the homeless gathered at the University of Winnipeg today, a day before Parliament is scheduled to vote on a bill that would bring the federal government into a leadership role on the issue.

Bill C-400, a private member's bill brought by Marie-Claude Morin, MP for Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot in Quebec, seeks to revive the goal of establishing a national housing strategy.

"To this day, Canada is the only G8 country without a national housing strategy," Morin said when she introduced the bill. "Yet, the development of affordable housing remains key to countering poverty and homelessness by improving the quality of life of Canadian households."

That view is shared by the Winnipeg-based Right to Housing coalition and the Red Tent Campaign.

 

'It's not a life at all, it is basically just an existence.'— Joe Hatch, formerly homeless

During a news conference at the university's inner city and urban studies classroom, spokespersons for the groups told reporters at least 350 Winnipeggers are currently living on the street, with nearly 2,000 living in shelters and another 7,600 "hidden homeless."

The coalition estimates 135,000 Winnipeg residents are at risk of becoming homeless.

For people like Joe Hatch, a formerly homeless man who has managed to get himself off the streets, the figures don't really illustrate the depth of the problem. 

"It's the most dehumanizing thing that anybody can really go through … I can't imagine a lower state of being," Hatch said Tuesday as he prepared to move to a duplex outside the city core from a downtown apartment.

"I heard very many times: 'Well, Joe, why don't you just find a home?' and these are from people who just didn't have any concept at all of just what it was like of not having a home or to not being able to find a home."

Diagnosed as bipolar, the university-educated man not only lost his job, but also his wife, family and friends. It's an experience he doesn't wish on anyone.

"That is not an experience that anybody would want to have," he told reporters at the news conference. "It's not a life at all, it is basically just an existence."

Christina Maes Nino of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg said the number of people staying in emergency shelters rose by 14 per-cent between 2008 to 2011.

"There's been good research that shows that for every person on the street another four are among the hidden homeless." Maes Nino said. "So that means people staying on couches, staying in places where you can't see them, staying in their cars.

In May, a report by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg showed a marked increase of people sleeping outdoors in the city.

With files from the CBC's Aadel Haleem