Manitoba·Point of View

'Why did it take a crisis?' COVID-19 housing for homeless too little, too late, critic says

The provincial government has stepped up in this time of crisis to aid the homeless sector, says Al Wiebe, but the question that screams to be asked is, 'Why did it take a crisis?"

'The vulnerable were vulnerable before COVID-19,' says advocate Al Wiebe

Winnipeg's homeless population has been notoriously ignored, says Al Wiebe. 'I am personally disgusted by the dehumanizing of the homeless and disregarding of their lives.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The provincial government has stepped up in this time of crisis to aid the homeless sector.

But the question that screams to be asked is, "Why did it take a crisis?"

Buildings, with a total of 142 beds, have been provided for isolation for the homeless and this is extremely important.

This added space is needed, in part, for physical distancing — which under normal circumstances, in shelters, is not possible.

The government has also — finally — made positive changes to the child welfare system, so that 18-year-olds are no longer being sent out on their own. 

It has given 10 Manitoba Housing apartments for youth to permanently move in to.

The government is no hero here. It is the latecomer to the party.- Al Wiebe

The years of inaction and no exit strategy for youth aging out, has cost lives and ruined others. Youth have exited to the streets in a lot of cases and have not escaped. 

Social enterprise is also benefiting, by putting formerly homeless persons to work on refurbishing the donated units. End Homelessness Winnipeg says it has committed (recently promised) federal funds to fight COVID-19.

Make no mistake; there have been many positive steps taken.

But why did it take a crisis?

Al Wiebe questions why it took a world pandemic for local governments to find housing for homeless Manitobans. 'The homeless and those in poverty have been seen as nothing but a burden,' he says. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Each year I (and others) put on a memorial service for those who have lost their lives to the streets. 

Each year the numbers are staggering. 

How many lives could have been saved over the years, if our provincial governments, city and strategic partners had put the same funding and effort into the homeless sector before now?

Hundreds of broken lives could have been saved, hundreds of youth lives could have been altered.

Why now?

Why did it take a crisis? Is it the optics? 

To do nothing, while the homeless catch and spread the disease and add to the death toll, would generate huge blame on the government and others. 

Is it that the vulnerable are more vulnerable to spreading the disease than anyone else? 

Serving on many committees, the comments are the same: "If we had the funding, we could do this, we could do that, we should find ways to house these folks."

The government has fiddled while Rome burned. 

The government is no hero here. It is the latecomer to the party. 

Even the community advisory board deferred funding to the cold weather shelters when it was suggested money was needed now. 

Then COVID-19 struck and money was put forward. But the vulnerable were vulnerable before COVID-19. 

In my opinion, this government (and other governments before it) did not consider the homeless worth throwing money at. 

The homeless and those in poverty have been seen as nothing but a burden.

Belongings and debris at the site of homeless camp under the Maryland Bridge in Winnipeg. 'The stigma of homelessness is more than a barrier. It is a death sentence,' says Al Wiebe. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As a person who has experienced homelessness, I am personally disgusted by the dehumanizing of the homeless and disregarding of their lives and mortality.

Why has the government not listened to the homeless voice? 

Why have they not even tried, before now, to fund housing programs that are appropriate? 


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What has been done now has been slow in coming, even after COVID-19 struck. As one manager said, "a day late and a dollar short."

Certainly sheltering is only Step 1. More money needs to be designated by this province to house the homeless. That is the ultimate solution.

I spent 26 months on the street.  My empathy runs deep for those experiencing homelessness. The stigma of homelessness is more than a barrier. It is a death sentence. 

The one thin thread that keeps the homeless alive is hope.- Al Wiebe

My experience with the health-care system, and my repeated rejection of help from emergency rooms while I was homeless, led me to jump off a bridge.

Had there been more help and understanding, I would not have gone through 26 months of homelessness and a suicide attempt by leaping into the Assiniboine River.

Had there not been this negative attitude toward homeless persons, then this homeless person might not have tried to take his life. 

And I am not alone.

More urgency, less patience

The one thin thread that keeps the homeless alive is hope. And when that thread is cut, well, the consequences can be devastating; many deaths on our streets each year. 

I recall that one leader in our community once said, "We have to have patience when dealing with housing the homeless."

"Pardon me?" I asked. 

This was after two homeless men had just been killed. 

There is, and has always been, an urgency to house the homeless. It saves their lives.

Is there anything worth more than saving than a life? 

Mine was nearly taken. How many more will be taken, before the correct and permanent steps are taken to save these very valuable lives?

They are us, you, me, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.

 I ask again. Why did it take a crisis? 

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Al Wiebe

Homeless persons advocate

Al Wiebe once made six figures as an advertising executive, before losing his job and finances due to personal struggles. He then lived on the streets and on social assistance. He has since worked with Make Poverty History Manitoba, the Lived Experience Circle and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

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