Convincing homeless to warm up in new mobile shelter no simple task

Mark Stewart runs through a checklist of safety procedures for two workers nestled into the back of a retrofitted ambulance before the trio heads out onto the alarmingly cold streets of Winnipeg’s downtown and North End.

Converted ambulance takes inaugural winter ride as part of mobile homeless outreach initiative

Salvation Army took CBC's Brett Purdy out while they spent the night looking for people left out in the cold

6 years ago
Duration 2:06
The CBC's Brett Purdy goes for a ride along with the Salvation Army's new retro fitted emergency van, used to help people who are left out in the cold.

"Hand warmers, tuques, coffee, socks," Mark Stewart says over the humming engine of a decommissioned ambulance.

Nestled into the back of the vehicle, the Salvation Army regional manager runs through a checklist of safety procedures with two co-workers before the trio heads out onto the alarmingly cold streets of Winnipeg's downtown and North End.

The Salvation Army's mobile homeless outreach van is expected to be on the road most cold nights this winter. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

"Let's not put ourselves in dangerous situations and let's see what we can do. Hopefully we don't find anybody, but let's stay safe and stay warm. If you hurt yourself, let me know right away and let's everybody get back and be safe."

The old emergency vehicle's first ride through Winnipeg on Wednesday night included a stop at a bus shelter, where workers failed to convince a man using intravenous drugs to let them take him to a shelter. 

The group spent the night in search of people, homeless or otherwise, stranded outdoors in the inner city amid temperatures that hit a chilling –24 C (which felt like –28 with the wind chill) by midnight.

The goal of the new campaign is to offer a little warmth to marginalized people on the streets this winter, either in the back of the vehicle or by shuttling them to one of several homeless shelters to wait out the cold.

A need in community

"We did realize there is a bit of a need in the community, and we realize other people are doing this," Stewart said, citing the Main Street Project's similar program that just started up again this winter after a several-year hiatus.

Mark Stewart (left) and his team have been out nightly in these extreme temperatures looking for people who are caught out in the cold. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

"In a collaborative role, we just want to be a part of that system that's just looking to help people that may not get help when it's late at night."

A Salvation Army in Thunder Bay, Ont., donated the ambulance to its Winnipeg chapter in December after the local organization expressed interest in starting a mobile homeless outreach program this winter.

People at the Sally Ann spent a few weeks over the holidays converting the ambulance for its new use.

It's stocked with blankets, warm clothes and hot coffee that the team handed out to 15 people during the first night on the road Wednesday.

Warming up to service

While the old ambulance can be a place to warm up as well as a ride to a homeless shelter, not everyone the trio came across the first night was eager to get into the unconventional-looking vehicle.

Mark Stewart is the regional manager of the Salvation Army. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Stewart said they tried to convince one woman, not from Winnipeg but on the street near King Street and Sutherland Avenue, to let them take her to a shelter to get warm.

"I just want to get her off the streets for tonight," Stewart said. 

Conditions were bone-chillingly cold in Winnipeg Wednesday night, with temperatures hitting -24 C (which felt like -28 C with the wind chill). (Brett Purdy/CBC)

"This is her choice to be out there, and we believe in self-determination, but at the same point, if we can just convince her that maybe tonight just a warm safe place is the answer, then we can all go home happy."

But the woman declined.

"It's definitely not something you want to see is a young woman not from Winnipeg out here, [midnight], trying to make money."

Another person took them up on the offer of a ride and spent the night at a shelter.

Not 'outside freezing'

Life-long North Ender Dave Johnson, a residential care worker at the Salvation Army, said the first night of the campaign was on the slower side, but "having a hard time finding people is a good thing, because it means people aren't outside freezing."

Dave Johnson has been working with the Salvation Army as a residential care worker for the past eight years and loves his job. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

"It feels good. I'm glad for the chance to help more people; I wish we were helping more," he said. "A lot of people leave their job, they're in a bad mood. I leave my job, I'm in an awesome mood."

May Ola, who is originally from Nigeria, where she went to law school, joined the Salvation Army in August. She was happy to be a part of the first night on the road.

"It's much more than giving them shelter. We connect with them and give them hope," said Ola, who has also worked at rehabilitation centres with women who have been sexually exploited.

Mark Stewart stands outside the back of the ambulance while someone warms up with some coffee inside. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Stewart suspects people on the streets — many of them older, poor and living with disabilities, addictions or mental health issues — will come around once word spreads about what the group is doing.

The plan is to have the vehicle out every night this winter with a few Salvation Army staff inside, Stewart said. They'll be back on the street Thursday night.

"I like this work because there's not so many jobs these days where you can actually get some personal satisfaction from trying to help somebody," Stewart said.

"Most of the time you can't help the way you want to help, but it's good to be in a positive role. It's good to work with people who have the same integrity, trust and honesty and want to help people just as much as you do."

The Salvation Army crew handed out coffee and warm clothes to people on the street during the first night of the campaign. The plan is to use the vehicle in the summer, too, to help people on the street stay cool during dangerously hot conditions. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

With files from Brett Purdy


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.