Homeless campers, advocates worry about winter months after Osborne Bridge fire

A fire that burned under Winnipeg's Osborne Street Bridge Wednesday morning, devastating a small homeless camp beneath the bridge, has left some worried about what will happen to the people living in the camp when winter comes.

Wednesday fire under bridge destroyed part of camp where group has been living for more than 2 months

Billy, one of the residents of a homeless camp underneath the Osborne Street Bridge, looks over the spot where his tent and belongings once stood following a Wednesday morning fire. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

A fire that burned under Winnipeg's Osborne Street Bridge Wednesday morning, devastating a small homeless camp beneath the bridge, has left some worried about what will happen to the people living in the camp when winter comes.

"They're not sure what they're going to do," said Rick Lees, executive director of Main Street Project. "They're like a community that's lost their community."

His organization, which provides shelter and other assistance for people experiencing homelessness, has been regularly visiting the roughly half-dozen people who have been living under the Osborne Street Bridge for more than two months.

Luckily, no one was seriously hurt in the fire that burned through the camp just before 8 a.m. Wednesday. But most campers, including one who identified himself only as Billy, lost everything.

"No jackets, no blankets," he told CBC News. "There's one girl who's got no shoes."

Holding on to dignity

While some people might question why people choose to live outdoors when there are options like rooming houses where rent is modest, Lees said it's about more than simply a roof over one's head.

"There are still people who see being able to stay outside as the last remaining piece of their dignity," he said. "And they'll try to hang onto that."

As well, the camps are often more safe than rooming houses, Lees said.

"I have more concerns about fires and rooming houses in the city. If you ever visit some of the rooming houses, the state of affairs of those, I think they are highly dangerous," he said, adding those types of rooming houses also regularly have problems with bedbugs.

"So we have to put this in perspective."

A firefighter goes through the smouldering camp under the Osborne Bridge on Wednesday morning. About a half dozen people had been living under the bridge for more than two months, and there are concerns about their well-being following the fire, and with winter approaching. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Wednesday's fire was unfortunate but at least the open-air camps allow organizations like Main Street Project to see and check on the city's vulnerable population.

"It's very difficult to monitor the abandoned buildings and rooming houses that people are staying in that are substandard dwellings to begin with," Lees said.

Jolene Wilson, a community connector with the West Central Women's Resource Centre who was once homeless herself, told CBC News that at this time of year,  with snow already hitting parts of the Prairies, many homeless people will be huddling together to keep warm.

"These camps are going to … continue to go up," she said.

Meth use may increase as well, Wilson said, because the drug keeps a person's core warm and the drug's effects can last for up to 12 hours.

People who can gather enough money might rent a hotel room for a night, but many stay away from shelters because they can be violent, she said.

One big family

The Osborne Bridge camp is one of many set up along the banks of Winnipeg's rivers. Billy said he knows of at least seven others.

The city used to clear out people living in the camps, but faced backlash this past summer from the public after issuing a request for proposals seeking a contractor to take on the job of dismantling campsites.

"It used to be that you'd call 311 about an encampment and it would be moved off," said Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry Coun. Sherri Rollins, whose ward includes the Osborne Village area. 

That, however, wouldn't allow for people living in camps to connect with services offered by groups like Main Street Project, or allow "for those conversations to be taking place," Rollins said.

Now, calls about camps are directed to Main Street Project.

"That's where our van comes in," Lees said, adding that the organization's mobile outreach van allows the non-profit to easily get around the city and offer aid to the homeless.

Lorissa Helmick said she's been living at the Osborne bridge camp on and off since June. She's been unable to work since suffering nerve damage a year ago, she said, and then her foot was broken when she was hit by a car.

Right now, she said Main Street Project and the Salvation Army have helped her by providing food, laundry services and shower facilities.

"Camping's fun for once in a while. But to live camping … is not fantastic," she said. 

The people living under the bridge are going to 'rally together' and discuss their next steps, said Main Street Project executive director Rick Lees. (CBC)

"We do this so we can watch each other's backs, you know. Make sure that strangers aren't going through, and women don't get hurt."

Helmick finds the tent too cold, so she hopes Employment Income Assistance will provide her with help so she can find an apartment.

On Wednesday morning, a 67-year-old camper who goes by the name Granny said the community will remain "one big family," regardless of what happens.

"No matter where we are, under the Donald [Bridge], under the Maryland [Bridge], we all look after one another," she said. "Staying together in numbers is our security. We band in little groups, that's how we do it."

Main Street Project's Lees said he's also been told that the group's top priority is sticking together.

"What I thought was interesting is they're going to rally together and have a discussion about it together," he said.

Section of homeless camp destroyed by fire

2 years ago
Duration 2:05
A fire under the Osborne Bridge destroyed part of camp where group has been living for more than 2 months. 2:05

With files from Emily Brass


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