New housing project to support those with challenges of mental health, addictions, homelessness
'We just want to provide a safe place for people to live,' says John Pollard
A land blessing helped launch a new housing project in the heart of Winnipeg's Centennial neighbourhood for those living with mental health and addictions and at risk of becoming homeless.
Construction will formally begin later this week on the three-storey, 47-unit building at the corner of Ross Avenue and Ellen Street.
On Monday, Jaime Grasby, a knowledge keeper from Sagkeeng First Nation, drummed, sang a prayer and smudged at the site for the safety of the construction crew and the people in the area "and for all that this place could be."
The project, called 390 Ross, will operate as a housing-first model, meaning individuals are not required to be in addiction recovery to move in, according to a provincial news release.
Supports will be provided to every resident seeking support for their challenges, while 24-hour staffing and a full meal program will also be offered.
Home First Winnipeg Inc., a non-profit registered charity established by the Pollard family, will operate the building. The Pollard family is providing $4.4 million for the project while the provincial government is contributing up to $1.1 million through the Canada-Manitoba Housing Agreement under the National Housing Strategy.
The project is also being partly funded by another $800,000 through the Shared Health Priorities Bilateral Agreement signed in 2019.
'Hopefully this housing building we're starting work on shortly will be about dignity and respect for people," said John Pollard, co-CEO of Pollard Banknote.
"It is very important to us that this building becomes a true home for the residents where they can feel part of a community. This is not a treatment facility — not that indirectly it won't be — but mostly we just want to provide a safe place for people to live."
Part of the idea for the project was sparked by Pollard's efforts to renovate the old Winnipeg Hotel on Main Street, as he has done at the neighbouring Fortune Block. The 1881 hotel, which had become run down in recent years and home to several vulnerable people, was closed up a couple of years ago.
"It came from experiences we see just in our city but also from a little bit of work we've been doing on Main Street where we had to displace some people," he said. "We saw the conditions in which those people were living and most of what we saw was the tremendous difficulty in helping those people find other places to live.
"Even with help from us it was really hard. It was almost impossible. You could see how easy it is to become homeless in this city."
And the "quality and nature" of those places that were available could only be described as "not good," Pollard said.
The new building, which is expected to be completed in the fall of 2022, will include a number of common spaces that will be open to welcome the general neighbourhood to create that sense of community, he noted.
"It is designed to have space for community activities and we hope to welcome many visitors next year."
A couple of hours earlier, a group called the Right to Housing Coalition hosted a rally at the Manitoba Legislature to urge the province to invest in 300 units of social housing annually — starting in next year's budget, and continuing for five years.
That number is based on an estimate needed to house people experiencing or at risk of homelessness in Winnipeg in 2018, the group said in a news release.
The 300 units will cost about $60 million in total — or less than one percent of what the province spends each year, the group's release said.
"People need safe housing that they can actually afford to live in," said the group's spokesperson River Woods. "It's a pretty basic human right."
Manitoba's private rental housing market is increasingly unaffordable to people experiencing poverty and homelessness. That, in turn, has heightened the demand for social housing where rents are capped at 30 per cent of the household's income, Woods said.
Currently, there are about 4,600 households on the waiting list for Manitoba Housing, "so 300 units a year will just scratch the surface of getting those people housed," Woods said.
With nowhere else to go, many people end up staying with friends or family, or in shelters, or outside, the group said in its news release.
It also underscored the need for increased spending in mental health and income supports, as well as systemic changes like addressing the ongoing colonization and racism experienced by Indigenous peoples.
"The factors contributing to poverty and homelessness are complex, meaning solutions are equally complex," the release said.