Manitoba·Opinion

Partnership's help for homeless encampment near Beer Can shows how government aid should work

The reality is that partnerships like the one between the Beer Can and the West Central Women's Resource Centre that helped people in a homeless encampment do not end homelessness by themselves.
Not everyone living unsheltered wants to be housed, but when the Beer Can partnered with the West Central Women's Resource Centre to help people living in a nearby encampment, they all took the opportunity to find homes. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Kirsten Bernas, the director of housing at the West Central Women's Resource Centre. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The good news story about a local business and a non-profit agency that teamed up to help people in a homeless encampment no doubt spread some hope for what can be achieved when different sectors come together to address social challenges.

The reality is that partnerships like the one between the Beer Can and the West Central Women's Resource Centre alone do not end homelessness. 

It requires a comprehensive response with sustainable government investments and political will to do things differently. 

Many factors aligned in this story that enabled the people who were living unsheltered near the Granite Curling Club to get housing within a matter of weeks.

This is not the norm, but it could be. 

First, the encampment did not get displaced.

The city is often pressured by surrounding businesses and citizens to remove encampments. 

The Beer Can is an outdoor patio near the river, where a camp had been built. Rather than simply tear the camp down, they worked to find alternatives for the people living there. (Trevor Brine/CBC )

The Beer Can, a new development in the neighbourhood, took a different approach. It built relationships with those living there and helped neighbours to see the encampment differently by sharing that experience in their conversations together. 

The fact that the encampment did not get displaced made it possible for outreach workers from non-profit agencies to regularly connect.

Second, agencies were funded to employ outreach workers and offer services. 

A network of outreach teams has long supported unsheltered people in Winnipeg. This includes building relationships and offering meals, hygiene items and connections to services like health and housing.

During the pandemic, governments offered new money to agencies specifically to support people experiencing homelessness. 

West Central Women's Resource Centre was one of these agencies. It received federal funding to pay for hotel stays, meals and staff to connect people to the provincial income assistance program (EIA) and housing. 

Not everyone living unsheltered wants to be housed, but everyone living in the encampment by the Beer Can took this opportunity. The safety and stability of being sheltered in the hotel and having access to a phone in their room simplified taking steps toward getting onto EIA and finding an apartment. 

This would not have been possible without the federal funding.

Third, governments decided it was possible to do things differently. 

Normally, due to wait times and bureaucratic requirements, it can take up to six weeks to get on EIA and several months, if not years, to access a Manitoba Housing unit. 

In early March, the Manitoba government announced it would rapidly move 50 people experiencing homelessness into vacant Manitoba Housing units that received fast-tracked repairs. (Why there were 50 empty units awaiting repairs when there is a wait-list over 4,000 households long still needs to be explored.) 

They also fast-tracked EIA intakes so people could pay their rent. 

Common barriers like providing specific documentation and IDs were removed. 

As a result, some of the people in the hotel got onto EIA and into housing within two weeks. 

This was an exceptional timeframe. It's not clear how the Manitoba government made this work, but it makes one wonder why these systems cannot always work this way.  

Advocates have put forward transformative solutions to make this recent experience the norm and rapidly scale up transitions from homelessness to housing. 

First and foremost is the need to make more social housing units available by investing in building new and maintaining existing stock. 

The Manitoba government has funded only 11 new social housing units from 2016-17 to 2019-20. 

A continuation of recent efforts to fast-track repairs to make existing units habitable can quickly bring more affordable housing options into the market, but we will not end homelessness without a clear plan from our government to build new housing. Until we build enough social housing to meet the demand, people experiencing homelessness will have to keep trying the private market, where rents are hundreds of dollars higher than EIA levels.  

Another critical need is to streamline access to EIA. 

These last few months, the program has shown that it is possible to make exceptions and remove barriers that delay intake processes, and this should become the norm. Additional measures for addressing the backlog of intake appointments should be prioritized; so should enhancing income benefit levels. 

There are other pieces, like continuing to fund community agencies to employ outreach workers and support people experiencing homelessness with temporary accommodations, from where they can navigate income and housing systems.

Transitions from homelessness to housing don't happen overnight. The work with the encampment by the Beer Can required time and the support of experienced and knowledgeable community agency workers who built trust and worked through complex government systems.

Ending homelessness is possible. However, it requires a long-term financial commitment from government to ensure social housing is in place, income supports are sufficient and easily accessible, and organizations working on the front lines are adequately resourced. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kirsten Bernas is the director of housing at the West Central Women's Resource Centre and the chair of the provincial working group of the Right to Housing Coalition.

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