Man who used to be homeless thankful to be off streets during biting cold

Andrew Meekis says he’ll never forget waking up to find food and warm clothing beside the cardboard boxes he was sleeping under one cold night a few years ago.

Andrew Meekis got into transitional housing 2 years ago driven by desire for stable living situation

Andrew Meekis used to be homeless but now lives in transitional housing through the Main Street Project. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Andrew Meekis says he'll never forget waking up to find food and warm clothing beside the cardboard boxes he was sleeping under one cold night a few years ago.

"Somebody's watching me to make sure I'm OK," Meekis reflected. "It was nice, nice of those ladies."

The dangerously cold temperatures Thursday night — Winnipeg hit a low of –29 C by 11 p.m. CT, or –40 with the wind chill — brought back memories of those harder times on the street.

The Winnipeg man struggles with addiction and used to spend his nights between two Kennedy Street apartments or wandering the streets from bus shelter to bus shelter to keep from freezing.

But now, Meekis does what he can to help his friends who are homeless.

About two years ago, he qualified for a spot in the Main Street Project's transitional housing program. He now has a room of his own.

"When you're living alone, nobody to talk to in the mornings … I like this place. Every time I get up, there's people," Meekis said.

The program is staffed 24/7 and provides housing for up to 34 people in 28 rooms.

Meekis started working with a Main Street Project caseworker two years ago after police delivered him to the shelter, where he spent several nights in a room in the building's Intoxicated Persons Attention Area.

Rick Lees stands near the Intoxicated Persons Attention Area at Main Street Project where Andrew Meekis would occasionally end up. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

"There's a lot more people who find themselves in distress on the streets who may be in high states of intoxication, dealing with other health issues, who get caught in the cold and don't find their way here, and so they'll be brought in by City of Winnipeg police," said Rick Lees, executive director of the Main Street Project.

"It's really the only shelter that deals with complex care, clients that are dealing with addiction, chronic health, mental health issues combined.

"That's what makes it unique … and it is bursting at the seams."

Tired of nights spent in those cells and the unstable nature of his living situation — his breaking point was when two men peed on him in a single night while he was asleep — Meekis began making plans for his future with the case worker.

Meekis hopes to eventually move on to the Bell Hotel on Main Street, which allows people to be more independent, providing individual housing as well as check-ins and support.

When he got his tax return this year, Meekis spent the money on warm clothes for his friends on the street. He did so knowing what it would mean to his friends and remembering what it was like waking up to similar gifts one cold morning two years ago, before he had secure housing.

With files from Erin Brohman