'Winnipeg can do better': Main Street Project plans expansion of homeless shelter, new programming

If Main Street Project's expansion into the Mitchell Fabrics building on Main Street goes ahead, it will do more than create the province's first supervised injection site — the move will free up space to create a long-term crystal meth detox facility at Main Street's current facility.

New shelter would include safe injection site and free up space for long-term meth detox

Main Street Project's space in the old Mitchell Fabrics building at Main Street and Logan Avenue is under a three week renovation for 120 more beds. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

If Main Street Project's expansion into the Mitchell Fabrics building on Main Street goes ahead, it will do more than create the province's first supervised injection site — the move will free up space to create a long-term crystal meth detox facility at Main Street's current facility.

It's something that's sorely needed in the city, says Main Street Project executive director Rick Lees.

"We need more beds for stabilization around meth… because it's a longer detox," he told CBC News on Saturday.

"The model we have in Manitoba is a 10-day detoxification that prepares you to go into a 30 or 90 day treatment program. Our problem here is 10 days is built around alcohol, it isn't built around opiates and meth.

"Research shows that if you want any chance of getting off meth you need to spend about a year."

The 10-bed detox centre would provide care for up to a year and also house mental health programs to help addicts deal with the issues around their addictions, explains Lees.

A man sits in chair in front of his office desk.
Rick Lees, executive director of the Main Street Project, says the shelter's move will free up space for a long-term crystal meth detox facility at Main Street’s current Martha Street location. . (CBC)

"People either come to addictions from a mental health background, or they develop mental health issues, particularly around meth because meth is a chemically altering drug, which changes the makeup of the brain."

Main Street Project has spent the last two years quietly planning the creation of the new shelter to house the city's homeless and chronically addicted population.

The move, spurred by a strategic plan that looked at where there were gaps in service, would see Main Street Project purchase the the Mitchell Fabrics building at Main Street and Logan Avenue before renovating the space and upgrading the current Martha Street building.

More beds, new programming

Currently Main Street Project's 2,100-square-foot building on Martha Street can squeeze 85 people in a night, but they're forced to sleep side by side on mats on the floor in conditions Lees describes as "not even healthy." 

The Mitchell building would provide 36,000-square-feet of space which Lees says would give them enough room for 120 beds and allow them to properly separate men, women, and members of the LGBTQ community.

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The new shelter would also include a safe injection site and managed-alcohol program, which would provide booze to chronically addicted alcoholics.

Both would be firsts in Manitoba.

"People are using in our facility anyway, so the reality is, why don't we ensure that they do it in a safe way?" said Lees.

While the managed alcohol program would be new in Manitoba similar programs have been operating in other Canadian cities for years, says Lees.

He points to the success of The Oaks in Ottawa — where residents line up for an hourly dose of wine as part of a managed alcohol program — as an example of the good they can do in the community.


The same goes for the safe consumption site, added Lees, who says eight Canadian cities already have similar programs up and running.

In Vancouver, a a five-year evaluation of city's largest safe injection site showed the facility saved the province at least $14 million over 10 years.

It's all part of Main Street Project's harm reduction approach, a strategy that Lees says reduces strain on police, the courts and city hospitals, and ultimately cuts operating costs.

Government approval needed

Main Street Project has been lobbying the federal government for help in launching the new shelter, which is estimated to cost $6.5 million.

That price tag includes the cost of buying and renovating the Mitchell Fabrics building and for renovating the Martha Street facility.

But to operate a safe injection site the facility would need both a license from the federal government, and approval from the community including the provincial government, says Lees.

That provincial approval may not come easily.

Last December Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the province has no has no plans to open a safe injection site, citing a lack of evidence it would work.

"Certainly at this point the evidence doesn't lead us to believe a safe injection site is the best place for resources to go to try to reduce drug addiction in Manitoba and Winnipeg," he said.

A CBC camera crew found used needles in the lot behind the Mitchell Fabric building Saturday, March 31, 2018. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

Ben Fry, CEO of Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, acknowledged in January the idea has worked in cities where the facilities target populations concentrated in a small area such as Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Winnipeg's problem, said Fry, is more widespread than a single neighbourhood.

Lees disagrees, and says there's plenty of evidence of IV drug use in and around Main Street Project's current location.

"I'm not suggesting that you have safe injection across the province or even anywhere other than where we are," he said. "But I can tell you that people are using in our washrooms and clogging toilets with needles and in absence of places to do it safely, they'll do it in back lanes and they'll do it on buses."

Warren Catcheway lives near the Mitchell Fabrics building and says he regularly finds used needles in the area.

Warren Catcheway says he regularly finds used needles in the area around Mitchell Fabrics. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

He says addicts in the area need a safe place to go.

"I think it's probably about time," he said of Main Street Project's plan. "You know, you have people doing whatever in the alleys here and leaving needles. A site like that would be safe."

'Winnipeg can do better'

Last week Lees met with Winnipeg MPs and Toronto MP Adam Vaughan, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, last week to discuss the plan.

He says community consultations are also in the works, and the hope is to have the new facility operating by the fall of 2019.

"I really feel that how we treat people who can't help themselves is reflective of our society, and I'd like to think Winnipeg can do better," Lees said.

"Why don't we build something that we can show our friends and relatives when they visit Winnipeg, just like we show them the human rights building with pride, you can say this is how we look after our marginalized people — look at the building we built."

With files from Laura Glowacki