'Alarming' spike in 911 calls about bus shelters in 2021: Winnipeg fire-paramedic chief
15 shelters, most in downtown, account for 25% of fire-paramedic calls to bus shelters, says Christian Schmidt
Winnipeg's fire-paramedic service has seen a sharp jump in the number of calls to 911 for help at bus shelters since the second wave of COVID-19, and the number continues to climb, according to the department's chief.
"The data we have for you is somewhat alarming and further indicates that many Winnipeggers are struggling," Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief Christian Schmidt told city council's parks and protection committee on Friday.
Last month, Coun. Shawn Nason brought forward a motion to the committee, asking the service to look into how often firefighters and paramedics were being called to bus shelters and why.
The report Schmidt delivered Friday looks at information from 2015 to the end of 2021.
It shows the number of calls for service at shelters jumped from 1,222 in 2020 to 1,770 calls in 2021 — a 45 per cent spike.
The 2021 number is also nearly double the 902 calls reported in 2015, according to the report.
Schmidt said there was a notable jump starting around October 2020, when the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic began in Manitoba.
A significant drop in transit users, coupled with more people using the bus shelters as living spaces, led to the rise in calls, he said.
Some people using the bus shacks as living spaces don't want to stay at homeless shelters, said Schmidt
"We've heard this from some of our community paramedics from the conversations they've had with clientele," he said.
"Some of this is fear of COVID. And staying in a heated shelter with lighting and frequent traffic nearby provides some sense of security."
Illness, overdose, fires lead to 911 calls
The report breaks down the reasons for the 911 calls.
Most of the calls didn't have a marked reason, however, since in many cases the caller was driving by a shelter, saw something concerning and contacted 911.
In those cases, callers didn't actually check on the person who needed help, either because they couldn't or they didn't feel comfortable doing so, said Schmidt.
But other 911 callers reported someone was sick, unconscious, had fallen or was overdosing.
Dispatch also received calls about people in the shelters suffering seizures and chest pain, or who had been victims of an assault. There were also calls related to fires at the bus shelters.
Police also called the fire-paramedic service to assist with calls they received.
In many cases, Schmidt said, the person who needed help was gone by the time first responders arrived.
The fire-paramedic chief said he will share the data with groups like the Downtown BIZ and Exchange District BIZ, so they can check on those shelters more frequently.
Most-visited shelters in downtown area, 2 in Transcona
Although there are 1,766 bus shelters in the city, there were 15 that together accounted for nearly 25 per cent of all calls, Schmidt said.
Crews responded to 2,016 incidents at those 15 shelters over the 2015-2021 period, he said.
Most shelters on that list are in the downtown core, including the most-visited one, at Portage Avenue and Donald Street.
But two are at Kildonan Place Mall in Transcona. The shelter at Regent Avenue W. and Stapon Road received 53 calls in 2021 alone, and had the third-highest number of calls for service in the city.
"We know there's a problem," Nason, the city councillor for Transcona, said after the meeting.
"The community is aware because of the visibility of it. You can't hide what are the challenges — it's front and centre."
He said he's received complaints from Transcona residents about people defecating in public at the bus shelters and harassing people going to and from the mall, as well as complaints about intoxicated people.
"People have said, 'Just take out the bus shelters. Just take them away if we can't use them,'" said Nason. "But you know, that doesn't resolve the issue. It just moves it down the street."
Nason said he works closely with the St. Boniface Street Links outreach group, since it visits people experiencing homelessness east of the Red River quite often.
He said he'd like more collaboration with the province to find housing and addictions resources for people who don't feel comfortable downtown, where the majority of shelters are.
Nason asked Schmidt's service to email committee members with more detailed information on whether the 911 calls required fire or paramedic response, and how long first responders stayed at the shelter. He also asked for a further breakdown of the reasons for 911 calls.