Refugee shelter in Gretna, Man., closing due to lack of demand

A temporary shelter for asylum-seekers in Gretna, Man., is closing due to a decrease in the number of people crossing the border.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers were crossing border every month last winter; now it's dozens

This vacant senior's home was used to accommodate people crossing the border at Emerson, Man. but is now being shut down. (Rehannon Tkachuk)

A temporary shelter for asylum-seekers in Gretna, Man., is closing due to a decrease in the number of people crossing the border. 

Last winter, the story of two refugees nearly losing their lives to dart across the border was followed by more and more stories, and from February to May, hundreds of desperate asylum seekers were being dropped off just south of the border and walking into Canada every month. 

The influx filled Winnipeg newcomer organizations and shelters to capacity, so on May 2 the province opened the Gretna reception centre in a converted seniors' home.

Since then, 430 asylum-seekers have spent their first nights in Canada there. 

But as of Dec.1, it will close. 

"The Manitoba government is relocating asylum seeker delivery services from the temporary reception centre in Gretna to existing offices in Winnipeg. We continue to work with partnering organizations to provide the same reception services in Winnipeg that were offered in Gretna," a provincial spokesperson said in a statement. 

The spokesperson said the centre cost $354,168, including staffing costs, to run for almost seven months. The average length of stay per individual was 3 days.
People in the border community of Gretna are getting ready to welcome asylum seekers leaving the US in search of a new home. A building that has been vacant for years is now a reception centre and residents are collecting donations to help the newcomers feel more comfortable, even if they'll only be there a few days. 2:01

"All necessary infrastructure will remain in place at the Gretna reception centre in case we need to reopen it in the future," the spokesperson said.

Last winter, Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen was howling for more resources after refugees started showing up in his community in the middle of winter, frozen and requiring a lot of resources to track down and get inside. 

He says he's relieved the numbers are dropping enough for the Gretna centre to close, and believes the number has dropped further in November. 
Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen stands outside on a frigid February day, speaking with CBC News when people were walking across the border seemingly every night. (CBC)

"The fewer people that come across, the less chance of people getting hurt, or hypothermia, or frostbite," he said.

"So if the numbers stay down, that's a lot less work, less medical calls, less hunting and searching for the RCMP looking for these people."

The vast majority still come at night, Janzen said, which is dangerous for everyone. 

But, he says, RCMP border patrols are down to 12 hours instead of 24. It's been quiet in the border town. 

"I think if the numbers start climbing again — it's pretty easy to open again once you have it open once."

Quebec's numbers have been the highest in Canada, but are also dipping — despite concerns that temporary status on certain groups could be lifted in January, including Haitians. 

Robin Neustaeter volunteered at the centre from when it opened in the spring. While opening the space to refugees was controversial in Gretna, Neustaeter said she was gratified to see how many people chipped in to help and donate supplies. 
Robin Neustaeter volunteered at the centre and says it was 'a wonderful experience.' (Supplied/Robin Neustaeter)

"Having the centre provided a bit of a breather for the services in Winnipeg to, perhaps catch up," Neustaeter said. 

She said refugees expressed their thanks for the warm, unique welcome to Canada.

As a mom, she connected with the other parents that risked their lives to carry their small children across the border to find refuge. So she says she's not surprised that fewer people are making the trek. 

"I've noted that the numbers are down," she said, adding that it was always supposed to be a temporary solution. 

The centre is now on standby, ready to reopen in case the numbers change again this winter. 

"They're going down right now, but are they gonna stay down? That's the million-dollar question right now," said Janzen.