Jets owner says 24/7 addictions drop-in centre should be part of massive rethink of addictions strategy

The Community Wellness and Public Safety Alliance — an alliance of business and community leaders which Winnipeg Jets owner Chipman is part of — is collaborating with emergency workers to set up a 24/7 addictions drop-in centre in downtown Winnipeg.

'We can't wish this away,' True North owner Mark Chipman says at Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce event

A safe place is needed in Winnipeg where people can get help no matter the time of day or year, say members of the Community Wellness and Public Safety Alliance. (CBC)

True North Sports and Entertainment owner Mark Chipman talked hockey contracts and the Winnipeg Jets at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday, but spent the majority of his time speaking about something he referred to as the "most heartbreaking of circumstances."

The Community Wellness and Public Safety Alliance — an alliance of business and community leaders which Chipman is part of — is collaborating with emergency workers to quietly move ahead with establishing a 24/7 drop-in centre in downtown Winnipeg to help those struggling with addictions.

The alliance has been looking at the issue of homelessness and addictions in Winnipeg since 2015.

Chipman told the chamber crowd Friday that he became increasingly aware of the growing crisis of public intoxication and addiction in the city's downtown several years ago. There were two ways to look at it, he told the audience.

"Your city's reputation is often determined by that 10-block radius at the centre. So you could look at it in a practical way if you wanted to — but more important, you have to look at it from a human perspective. It's just not acceptable at that level," he told a hushed crowd.

So the NHL owner and developer, in his words, "pulled together some people … to get a better understanding," of the problem.

True North's Mark Chipman says while there is a safety issue to consider in the short-term, the addictions problem is ultimately a health issue, not a justice one. (John Einarson/CBC)

Now, the Community Wellness and Public Safety Alliance has a business plan that it presented to the Progressive Conservative government several months ago, and is looking for property to build a 24/7 drop-in centre that offers a broad range of services to stabilize and treat addicts.

A safe place is needed where people can get help no matter the time of day or year, Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg and a member of the alliance, told CBC News ahead of Chipman's Friday presenation.

"The number of homeless people now is just, it's not acceptable. These are human beings, these are people that need help. You can't write them off," Johnston said.

The alliance studied what a number of other cities are doing and found Winnipeg lacks a place for people to go when they need help. While there are already addictions treatment centres, there is nothing available 24/7, Johnston said.

"People on the street or people anywhere, struggling with addiction … if they make a decision in their life that they want help to deal with whatever they're struggling with then we know from the evidence-based research that if they need, it needs to be an instant response," he said.

Shift perspective: Chipman

Chipman told Friday's chamber event that a rethink is needed on  how to help people who are caught in the depths of addiction, living with mental health issues, or struggling with both.

"We have got to shift our perspective from one of law enforcement and justice to one of health care on this matter," he said.

"If we can do that, and look at this through a health lens and create the proper facility that offers the full continuum of services to help the people that need it most in our community, then we can make some headway."

Chipman warned the crowd not enough funding is in place and in the short term, there is a clear safety issue to be faced on downtown streets.

"Frankly, there is just not enough resources just to deal with what we are dealing with right now. There are not. So I don't want to suggest we throw more police at this. But … there is a real safety issue to this as well."

A 24/7 drop-in centre to help people struggling with addiction is 'critical to the future of this city,' says Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg and a member of the alliance. (CBC)

Johnston also acknowledged the city has to deal with issues such as a ballooning meth problem.

"A lot has changed in Winnipeg over the years, [and] when things change you have to pay attention to what you should be addressing as a broader community," he said, emphasizing the need for an all-hours centre.

"There's no doubt in my mind all of this is needed. I absolutely believe it's critical to the future of this city."

The alliance is also looking for governments at all levels to step in with funding.

"Do we have the resources to do this? There's no doubt we do," Johnston said. "We've just got to get commitments."

'Hope isn't a great strategy'

Christian Schmidt — a deputy chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and one of the leaders of the Community Wellness and Public Safety Alliance — says the group is proposing what he called a "fortified outreach program."

Such a program would do much of the work that front-line emergency workers are doing currently, he said, but looking for longer-term results than stabilizing people on the street and moving them along.

"Our crews, front–line crews — police, fire, paramedics — are responding to those 911 calls for assistance and it puts a great demand on our emergency resources," Schmidt said.

"There are better ways of addressing those needs."

He said the alliance is working on choosing a building site for a drop-in centre, and is raising the capital to pay for it.

Deputy fire Chief Christian Schmidt says the alliance is close to choosing a building site for a drop-in centre and is working to raise the capital to pay for it. (John Einarson/CBC )

​​Chipman issued a challenge Friday to government and the business community to step up and help — changing policies and increasing resources, or volunteering time and offering help.

The Progressive Conservative government released a statement soon after Chipman's speech Friday, promising support for some of the alliance's initiatives, including the establishment of an acute medical sobering unit and a drop-in centre.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said in the statement "we recognize that time is of the essence when it comes to this issue. There is no time to wait."

"We can't wish this away," Chipman told the Chamber of Commerce crowd.

"Hope isn't a great strategy."

With files from Darren Bernhardt