Manitoba

Winnipeg's homeless struggle with physical distancing

People living on Winnipeg's streets, and the organizations that work to help them, are worried about the spread of COVID-19 among the most vulnerable. They say physical distancing isn’t easy when you’re homeless.

Province opens apartment block for homeless who need to self-isolate

A volunteer encourages people waiting outside Winnipeg's Lighthouse Mission to practise safe physical distancing on Friday, April 10, 2020. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Outside the Lighthouse Mission, a volunteer is giving unfamiliar instructions to some Winnipeggers who are homeless — telling them to keep their distance, and warning that if they don't, the charity that feeds them could be shut down.

"We've had a huge challenge with being able to serve the population," said Daniel Emond, a volunteer board member with the mission.

"The state of some of the people that we're dealing with is not so good as it is. So to be asked to try to enforce certain rules and laws, as missionaries and humanitarians, it's been a bit of a challenge."

Those challenges include trying to communicate the importance of physical distancing to people who might be dealing with mental health or addiction issues, he said, and may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

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The charity is using chalk to mark spaces on its Main Street sidewalk, to encourage its clients to comply with the physical distancing now required to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Across the street, homeless people were crammed together inside a bus shack — a sight that's become common in recent days throughout Winnipeg's downtown.

Doug Hutt doesn’t think many on the streets are getting the message about physical distancing. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Doug Hutt doesn't think many people who live on the streets are getting the message.

"People are still drinking together, they're still partying, they're still doing everything that they did. They don't care," he said Friday outside the West Broadway Community Ministry.

Volunteers with the ministry were handing out pizza and bag lunches Friday — a slice of love at an unusual time for some of the city's most vulnerable.

West Broadway Community minister Lynda Trono said some of the people she's talked to who stop by for a meal are having a hard time dealing with the pandemic.

"Some people don't believe that this is happening. Some people are fighting against it. Some people just don't understand, and some people are really angry."

West Broadway Community minister Lynda Trono says it's hard for people who are homeless to stay distant from other people, because they recognize just how much they need each other. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Michael Moore is well aware of the dangers of the coronavirus, but he said when you're living on the street, physical distancing isn't easy. He slept in a bus shack Thursday night.

"There's nothing we can do about it. The streets are hard out here, man. We've got to stick together or else you ain't going to have nothing," the 27-year-old told CBC.

Leslie Ostrom lives in a rooming house. He's worried about what will happen if someone in the building catches COVID-19. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD — a chronic lung disease — and high blood pressure.

"If somebody gets it in our place I expect maybe half to three-quarters of the house to die, because there's a lot of people in there that are high-risk health problems."

Leslie Ostrom has health problems and worries what would happen if someone in his rooming house got COVID-19. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Manitoba's top doctor told reporters Friday the province is working to get the physical distancing message out to the homeless.

"I think most Manitobans are complying, and I think most Manitobans want to comply," said chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin.

"We just have some that don't know the importance yet, so I think that visibility out there and the messaging can certainly improve."

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin talks about the province's plan for the homeless:

Dr. Brent Roussin says the province is staying connected with Manitoba’s homeless population to see how they can encourage physical distancing among vulnerable people. 0:41

His comments came as the province opened 39 units in an apartment block in the city's West End, where people experiencing homelessness can self-isolate if they have, or are suspected of having, COVID-19.

Roussin added the province has a fine line to walk.

"We certainly want to make sure we don't, in this messaging, further disadvantage the disadvantaged, which tends to occur when we have any of these outbreaks or public health issues."

People living on Winnipeg streets and the organizations that help them are worried about the spread of COVID 19 among the most vulnerable and say physical distancing isn’t easy when you’re homeless. 2:00

About the Author

​Austin Grabish landed his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. In 2019, he was on the ground in northern Manitoba covering the manhunt for B.C. fugitives Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, which attracted international attention. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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