Manitoba

Winnipeg silences piercing homeless deterrents under bridges after loud criticism

The City of Winnipeg is turning off four controversial noise emitters it was using to shoo away homeless people with nowhere else to sleep. 

City placed 4 sound-emitting devices to discourage people from setting up camp

The city will be turning off a sound emitter underneath the Maryland Bridge which gave off a high-pitched shrill. The noise was designed to discourage people from congregating. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg is turning off four controversial noise emitters it was using to shoo away homeless people with nowhere else to sleep. 

After an uproar online, the city decided Wednesday night to cancel the use of a sound-emitting device to discourage people from gathering underneath bridges and vehicle overpasses.

"After hearing from the mayor, members of council, and others today, we have decided to discontinue this pilot project; and we will disable the sound-emitting devices at these locations," interim chief administrative officer Michael Ruta said in an email to mayor and council.

"The public service will evaluate options to protect the infrastructure and the safety of those who are congregating under the bridges."

Critics slammed the noise deterrents — located at three bridges and one vehicle underpass — as an affront to the homeless community, some of whom found shelter in these areas. 

The city's pilot project avoided widespread scrutiny until a Twitter user flagged the noise underneath the Maryland Bridge Tuesday night, describing the high-pitched screech as "irritating" and attempts to deter homeless camps as "cruel and pointless."

Beeping, whining devices installed beneath the Maryland Bridge are meant to keep people from camping there. 0:33

In response, Winnipeg's Twitter account acknowledged the noise deterrents are meant to discourage gatherings at locations that "have experienced problems with encampments that included fires."

Although no specific examples were cited, last October a fire burned through a homeless camp under the Osborne Bridge.

Homeless advocates denounced the city's pilot project, which Ruta said began earlier this spring.

"I think it's dehumanizing to actually do this," said Al Wiebe, a former advertising executive who found himself homeless on Winnipeg's streets for 26 months.

He said bridges serve as a natural shelter for homeless people, and are arguably safer than other places where they could rest their head.

The city said it would evaluate other ways to keep its bridge infrastructure safe, after pulling the plug on the usage of a noise emitter. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"For the city to actually put noise emitters so people don't have the opportunity to settle there, it's very disconcerting."

A city spokesperson could not answer Wednesday where the four sound-emitting devices were located, nor how often they blared.

The pilot program was meant to study the devices' effectiveness in preventing damage to city infrastructure. Ruta wrote in his email that bridges were damaged from fires set underneath them.

Wiebe said the pilot project lacked empathy for the people involved.

Marion Willis, who founded a St. Boniface house for homeless men battling addiction, said a noise deterrent has been a nuisance under the Provencher Bridge for more than a month.

She said her outreach team at Morberg House considered the device to be "rather inhumane." 

"It's naive to believe that any sound deterrent is going to prevent the unsheltered population from establishing encampments. Encampments are a way of life now in a city that is completely lacking in social housing," she said.

While some people have moved out, it hasn't eliminated the problem, Willis said — it's only gone elsewhere. She said an encampment is sprouting up below the bridge at St. Mary's Road and Vivian Avenue.

There was also a mass displacement earlier this month when two homeless camps near the Disraeli Freeway were evicted.

Willis would prefer if maybe an endowment fund was established to bolster the city's stock of affordable housing.

"If we really want to think about public safety, we will focus on coming together to come up with some real solutions to end the housing crisis in this city and in this province."

Lucille Bruce said her organization, End Homelessness Winnipeg, will focus their energies on outreach. She wants to find alternative arrangements so people experiencing homelessness can find comfort elsewhere.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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