Manitoba

Homeless community displaced after city razes their camp following teepee blaze

People staying in the remaining tents had to move their belongings to the side, as front-end loaders razed their camp.

City's homeless community cannot crumble like its 2 teepees, critic says

Kyle Bighetty, 29, says he chooses to live outside in a tent because of the freedom and doesn't know where he'll set up next. (CBC/Warren Kay)

The City of Winnipeg has cleared a temporary homeless camp near the Disraeli Bridge after a second teepee donated to the people living there burned down on Tuesday.

People staying in the remaining tents moved their belongings to the side on Thursday morning, before loaders cleared everything in the field. 

"It sucks," said Kyle Bighetty, 29, who says he's lived at the site on Henry Avenue for a year. 

He had other options for shelter, but said he preferred living at camp. 

"Freedom," he said. "No rules, no regulations. No limits."

Hours later, dozens of protesters gathered around a bonfire on the grounds of city hall to slam the abrupt displacement of the homeless community.

'This isn't a defeat'

"We don't let the embers of that community die with that fire," Ryan Beardy said to cheers, as the crowd huddled around the fire's warmth. 

Bentley Dubios, who works with Beardy in the Healing Together support group for men, vowed the teepees would rise again.

"This isn't a defeat, this is an opportunity," he said. "All they did was clear the land for us to do this again."

Protesters sing and drum in front of City Hall Thursday after a homeless camp was dismantled earlier in the day. 0:32

The city says it didn't have a choice to raze the encampment. 

"The structures were not built for Winnipeg's winter conditions without a heat source," a spokesperson said in an email. "Everyone deserves a safe place to sleep at night, and these encampments, as they were established, were not safe."

The city said many people living in the camps were using propane heaters, or burning candles or small campfires inside the tents. They said the structures were combustible and at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Some people were even burning mattresses to stay warm, the city said.

Around 60 protestors gathered outside Winnipeg City Hall, beside fires they started, to protest the city's displacement of the homeless camp near the Disraeli Bridge. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Although Main Street Project staff said only four people lived at the site 24/7, the camp became a gathering place during the day.

In December, the city cleared two structures from the area, prompting the donation of a teepee so people living there could stay warm. Another teepee was gifted in honour of Matthew Sutherland, who was part of the homeless community before he was killed on Oct. 31. 

"We understand that the teepees were established in a spiritual, healing context, and were donated with the best intentions," the city spokesperson said.

"However, to supply teepees and not provide support for their ongoing safe use is to house the homeless in unsafe circumstances. It is only through extraordinarily good fortune that there have not been any serious injuries or deaths in the fires."

Victim suffered third-degree burns

The first teepee burned down on Jan. 3 after a burning candle was left inside, the city said. Main Street Project director Rick Lees said the woman sustained third-degree burns to her face and hands.

The second teepee was found unoccupied and engulfed in flames on Tuesday.

As demolition of the area began Thursday, Main Street Project staff were connecting people with shelter options, benefits or food.

Adrienne Dudek, Main Street's director of housing, said several different agencies have spent weeks helping people living at the camp access the services they need.

The teepee that was torched earlier this week was erected in honour of Matthew Allan Sutherland, who was killed last October. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

She said one man whose tent was demolished was looking for a fresh start and wanted to move into his apartment. He previously told CBC he preferred the social aspect of living outside among friends. He was banned from some of Main Street Project's overnight shelter programming due to fighting.

"Until we change systemic barriers and until we create more alternative housing and until we can break down some of those access to services in general at all three levels of government, it's going to continue, homelessness will continue," Dudek said. "It's about trying our best to meet people's needs where they're at."

She said one way to help the homeless community is by supporting the work of organizations such as Main Street Project. They need financial help to run their overnight van which checks on people sleeping outside, she said.

Many of the people living at the homeless camp, though, were choosing to live there, rather than a shelter. 

Bighetty liked living outside in tents and sharing them with friends, rather than the stairwells he lived inside last winter. He doesn't know where he'll set up next.

"Wherever my two feet and a heartbeat take me," he said.

The City of Winnipeg has cleared a temporary homeless camp set up near the Disraeli Bridge after two teepees donated to the people living there burned down. 1:30

With files from Ian Froese