Manitoba·Point of View

Patrolling streets, building connections: Volunteers reach out to homeless, drug-addicted during pandemic

St. Boniface Street Links continues — amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — to serve those others have given up on, and those who've given up on themselves, says volunteer Robert Lidstone.

St. Boniface Street Links volunteers serving 'those who've given up on themselves' during pandemic

Volunteer Robert Lidstone, second from right, with colleagues Stephen Hall, left, Mario Chaput and Derek Henderson. All of them are grateful to help the most vulnerable during the pandemic, Lidstone says. (Submitted by Robert Lidstone)

"Keep calm, pray, and help others. God is with us!"

This is the message we read on the billboard outside the onion-domed Ukrainian Catholic church on Marion Street, as our outreach van drives by. 

Mario, Derek, Stephen and I — all residents of the St. Boniface Street Links sober-living community — are volunteering to canvass the local unsheltered population.

We distribute meals donated by the SIGN (Strength In Greater Numbers) Foundation and coffee donated by Café Postal, along with supplies like toilet paper, soap and socks. 

It's a bright, sunny day, but unusually quiet amidst the disruptions and closures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I used to pray for myself, but now my prayers are to watch over people affected by this virus.- Derek Henderson

"Y'know, I pray every day to God," says Derek.

"I still think he hasn't forgiven me for all the shit I've done."

"You just haven't forgiven yourself yet," Stephen, his roommate, responds. 

A few moments of silence pass.

"I used to pray for myself, but now my prayers are to watch over people affected by this virus," Derek reflects. 

At four months clean from methamphetamine, he is grateful for the change in perspective, made possible by the Morberg House program of recovery. 

All four of us are thankful for the opportunity to serve others, after having been trapped for so long in addiction and poor mental health. 

We each know what it is like to use meth persistently and be awake for days on end, suffer paranoia and psychosis, and ultimately end up without a home. 

We know what it is like to lose touch with real friends and family members; to become consumed by a relationship with a substance that hijacks your mind and body in the endless pursuit of more — only to leave you with less and less.

Building relationships on the streets

Day 1 of our travels introduces us to Coyote.

Huddled on a sidewalk corner, he shares his story with us. 

He once ran a home renovation business. But he lost everything after the fires in Fort McMurray, Alta.

Now homeless in Winnipeg, he lives in a tent, at an encampment on the Seine River.

When asked what is needed out there, Coyote pipes up, "more washrooms!" 

Due to the pandemic, many public washrooms are completely closed, and it's next to impossible to practice things like regular hand-washing. 

Through Morberg House, I was able to stabilize, stop using meth, and get an accurate mental health diagnosis.- Robert Lidstone

On Provencher Boulevard, stretched out on a park bench, we find Andrew, who is also homeless. 

He manages to find spots where he can crash undisturbed, in between bouts of meth use, he tells us. 

Having once slept in ATM vestibules, hospital washrooms and apartment building stairwells myself, I immediately identify with him. I too, once wandered the streets in search of food, shelter, and the next high.

Fortunately, I connected with the staff at Morberg House, after running into a friend who lived at Morberg at the library. (That's another public space, closed down by the pandemic, that street-involved folks would rely on for computer access and respite from the elements.)

Through Morberg House, I was able to stabilize, stop using meth, and get an accurate mental health diagnosis — something that had eluded me for years.

What St. Boniface Street Links does to end homelessness and treat addiction and mental health really works. 

Ruheen Aziz, left, of the SIGN (Strength in Greater Numbers) Foundation, with Robert Lidston. SIGN donates pre-packaged meals (like chicken and rice in this photo) for Lidstone and his colleagues to distribute. (Submitted by Robert Lidstone)

Our outreach team is made up of people with lived experience (meaning they've been there, done that) and supported by professionals like Antoinette, our staff psychiatric nurse. 

We patrol the streets and build relationships with people. 

SBSL staff work to connect individuals with income assistance, housing, and health care as appropriate. 

Example: Andrew wanted safe housing, but one of the barriers was mental health. 

Once on disability income support for depression and PTSD, Andrew lost his social assistance because he failed to file paperwork on time. 

Another factor was meth addiction — he says meth use ultimately led to his eviction.

Through Morberg House — a high-support, residential recovery program — SBSL has developed expertise in treating addiction to meth and other substances and preventing a return to homelessness. 

We make sure that everyone who stays with us receives proper medical and psychiatric care, and that underlying mental health conditions are identified. 

Our service doesn't end after a night's or a month's stay either. We follow each person from Morberg House into community living for up to two years — because recovery from homelessness and addiction is a long-term one, not amenable to a quick fix.

St. Boniface Street Links continues — amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — to serve those others have given up on, and those who've given up on themselves. 

We are truly thankful for the ongoing support of our community, for making it possible to restore the humanity and the dignity of our participants.

May you all stay safe and well.


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

Robert Lidstone is a lived experience member of the St. Boniface Street Links Board of Directors.

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