Spike in thefts at Habitat for Humanity sites 'killing us,' charity says

A rash of break-ins and thefts at Habitat for Humanity construction is putting financial strain on the non-profit home building and delaying move-in days for low-income families, the organization says.

Their construction sites in Winnipeg have been hit more than 20 times since May

Thieves have broken into Habitat for Humanity sites around Winnipeg more than 20 times since May. (Submitted by Habitat for Humanity)

A rash of break-ins and thefts at Habitat for Humanity construction sites is costing the non-profit thousands and delaying move-in days, the organization says. 

At one house, at 284 Cathedral Ave. in the St. John's neighbourhood, Habitat has had to install copper wiring three times — at a cost of $4,000 every time — because thieves rip it out as soon as it's installed.

"So this one is absolutely killing us, that someone thinks that this is OK to just come and take it, that this doesn't matter or have an impact," said Linda Peters, vice-president of program delivery.

Since May, the non-profit home builders have had more than 20 break-ins at work sites throughout Winnipeg causing around $25,000 in losses and damage. 

"We've had thefts in the past, but we've never had this many," said Michelle Pereira, vice-president of marketing, communications and philanthropy for Habitat.

In a typical year, Pereira estimates the charity will experience four or five break-ins. Now, they're happening about once a week.

The Cathedral Avenue site is not the only one that has been hit multiple times. At another site on Flora Avenue, thieves cut through a heavy-duty lock on their trailer and used a jack to pry open a locked toolbox.

The copper wiring was ripped out of this house under construction at 284 Cathedral Avenue. (Submitted by Habitat for Humanity)

The thieves sell the tools, along with any copper or other material they can get their hands on. While it costs the organization thousands to replace the copper and repair damage when it is ripped out, the thieves only get between $20 and $50 when sell it it at a scrap metal shop, Peters said.

"It's ridiculous," she said.

Pereira called on anyone buying scrap metal to stop paying for stolen copper.

"If you're buying copper. it's highly likely that they did not come by this copper honesty and you're encouraging crime," she said. "If it's nice and shiny and pretty and not used, it's been stolen. so just stop buying it. That's it."

Police spokesperson Const. Jay Murray confirmed multiple repots from Habitat sites, and reminded the public that possessing stolen goods is illegal. 

Even windows aren't necessarily safe. At one site, thieves ripped out custom-built windows right after they were installed.

"You do have to kind of laugh a little bit, like 'what are you gonna do with this?' It's probably damaged by the time they get it out of there."

The cost and delays are having a serious impact on Habitat's operations, Pereira said. The house on Cathedral Avenue is now about three weeks behind schedule. 

"We are in high season right now, we are trying to keep on track with construction. The delays mean that it's that much longer before a family gets to move in.

"We only build as many houses as we can afford, but now we're out $25,000 that we hadn't planned on," she said.

A jack was used to pry open this secure tool box inside a trailer at a Habitat for Humanity site on Flora Avenue. (Submitted by Habitat for Humanity)

Some of the tools stolen recently were donated by Skills Canada after former U.S. president Jimmy Carter visited a site in Winnipeg last year. 

"So that's the stuff they're taking, someone else's generosity, and now they're taking tools," Periera said.

The impacts go beyond simply the money lost.

"It's production, our volunteer experiences are affected, and then the amount of manpower we've had from our staff to file police reports, get things done, replace things, document things."

Winnipeg police officers have been supportive, and the charity has hired private security in the past, but the cost is too high, Pereira said.

"We feel that it's time to tell the community that this is happening to us in the hope that our neighbours will keep a lookout for unsuspecting lurkers around our build sites after we're gone and call 911," she said.

If anyone sees or hears anything suspicious at one of Habitat's work sites, Pereira says people should not intervene and instead call the police.

About the Author

Cameron MacLean

Web Writer

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, Man. where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.


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