Shortages of money and food complicate Morberg House's pandemic plans

Food and money are in short supply at Morberg House, as the home for recovering addicts and those with mental health issues struggles to maintain social distancing while reaching out to those who are at risk on the streets.

St. Boniface Street Links setting up emergency shelter for homeless during COVID-19 outbreak

Morberg House on Provencher Boulevard provides beds for men transitioning out of homelessness, with addictions and mental health problems. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

COVID-19 is hurting the bottom line of a social housing program that helps men transition out of homelessness, and deal with addictions and mental health problems. 

Morberg House, a three-storey building on Provencher Boulevard, has had to reduce the number of its residents from 15 down to 10 to maintain social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said founder Marion Willis. 

"This is so I have the space to create a quarantine unit. We have transformed the third floor into a sterile quarantine unit," said Willis. 

The five men were moved into suites set aside for the St. Boniface Street Links sober living community. St. Boniface Street Links, which operates out of Morberg House, is a charitable organization that helps recovering addicts find a place to live. 

But that's taking a bite out of Willis' bottom line. 

"By reducing my population, I am losing more than $3,500 a month because room and board is paid by the province's Employment and Income Assistance program. If this carries on for a minimum of three months, that $10,000 loss is devastating to us," said Willis.

The recent death of one of Morberg House's strongest supporters dealt another financial blow. Gail Morberg, who purchased the house for St. Boniface Street Links, died last month.

"On top of this dear woman buying this house for us, she gave us $100,000 a year. On a budget of $700,000, that is quite a lot," said Willis.

That loss of funding has resulted in two layoffs: a registered occupational therapist and a community support worker. 

New emergency shelter

Despite the loss of money, St. Boniface Street Links is still forging ahead with setting up a 40-bed emergency shelter.

Willis said more space is needed to help the most vulnerable during the pandemic. She is finalizing details with a church in the neighbourhood.

"We will be setting up a temporary homeless shelter because if someone was to knock on the door of Morberg House, I wouldn't have room for them. We have all the infrastructure in place for the church where we will be able to accommodate 40 people," said Willis.

She estimates about 300 to 400 people are still living on the streets in St. Boniface. Willis anticipates about a quarter of them would be willing to come off the street and live in a shelter if someone reached out to them with food and a place to live.

"They would live like the rest of us, not going out and staying in. We will look after them," said Willis.

Marion Willis, the founder of Morberg House, says she's had to move out 5 of the 15 men who live at the home in order to comply with social distancing guidelines amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Morberg House is getting some high profile help. Mark Chipman, chair of True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Winnipeg Jets, is giving St. Boniface Street Links a van to search along streets and riverbanks to help encampments of homeless people. Volunteers usually scour the streets and riverbanks on foot or bike. 

"This was so incredibly generous," said Willis. "We are going to go where we know there are encampments, providing food and drinks out the window, handing out information so people know what the symptoms of COVID-19 are and what to do if one of them becomes ill.

"Volunteers are making soup and sandwiches. We will tell those who are vulnerable where the new shelter is. And as long as they aren't showing symptoms, they can come to the shelter," said Willis. 

The van will be used to find people in old St. Boniface, Norwood Grove, Norwood Flats, old St. Vital, and Windsor Park, all the way to Southdale. 

Even though there are fewer men living at Morberg, there is still a waiting list. Four men who received bail on condition they live at Morberg House have been waiting weeks for a bed. Willis is afraid they may have to be sitting in jail a lot longer.

Food and supply shortages

Panicked shoppers clearing shelves at grocery stores also means less on the dinner table at Morberg.

"We have lost our food supply. The No Frills store in St. Boniface has normally fed us. They really can't do that adequately right now because there's not much left on shelves. Groceries cost me $800 which I hope will last the guys three weeks," said Willis.

Those hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer are also making shopping a lot more difficult. Willis said staff are in parking lots before stores open to try and get their hands on toilet paper. Hand sanitizer, she said, seems almost impossible to find. 

An anonymous donor recently gave Moberg a generous donation provided the money was used to wipe out its debt. That was accomplished but now Moberg risks going into debt again. With a shortage of food, having to lay off staff and move some residents out — and no stable funding — losses are climbing to more than $125,000, Willis said.

More bad news came earlier this week.

Willis was denied funding from the Reaching Home program for the next fiscal year. Reaching Home falls under Canada's Homelessness Strategy aimed at preventing and reducing homelessness across Canada. She wasn't give a reason why.

Despite the obstacles, Willis still holds out hope. 

"We have a choice to live in faith or fear. Yes, it is frustrating and if I allow myself, I can fall into the devastation. But I always believe there is providence to what we do here. Something always happens to turn this around. I am hoping that will happen again."