Majority of clients using Winnipeg safe space are young Indigenous men and boys
'We have seen a rise in men involved in exploitation,' says outreach worker at Tina's Safe Haven
A drop-in safe space created in honour of slain teen Tina Fontaine has been full almost every night since it opened late last year — and the majority of its clients are young Indigenous men and boys, staff say.
Workers at Tina's Safe Haven — a 24/7 safe space for youth on Winnipeg's Selkirk Avenue — say on any given night, young men and boys use 60 per cent of the 50 spaces they have.
"We have seen a rise in men involved in exploitation — and we're talking about young men, 17, 18, and 19 years old," said Debbie Cumby, an outreach worker with Ndinawe. The non-profit organization, which works with at-risk youth, runs Tina's Safe Haven.
The safe house, which opened in November 2018, was named after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was pulled from the Red River in August 2014. The girl's killing made national headlines and helped spark a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Even years before that, though, Ndinawe was calling for a 24/7 drop-in space for young people.
Tina's Safe Space is unique in the city as a 24/7 drop-in. There are other options for young people who need a safe space overnight, such as the West End 24 Hour Safe Space for Youth on Langside Street, and Rossbrook House on Ross Avenue — but those drop-in spaces are only open on weekends during the school year.
Cumby said what many people might not know is that most of the kids who need a place to sleep every night in Winnipeg are young Indigenous men — some of whom are fighting addiction to drugs like meth, which is cheap and keeps them awake at night.
"You end up depressed, homeless, and you have five bucks, so you get high on meth and you can be high for the rest of the day, and not have to worry about shit [like] being murdered or raped," Cumby said.
'There was very little help for me'
Ryan Beardy knows what it's like to try to find a safe space when you live on the streets.
"You need to be resourceful for yourself, and that's the sad part," said Beardy, who works with GAIN — the Gang Action Interagency Network. The network of non-profits, government agencies and law enforcement works to find grassroots solutions to gang issues in Winnipeg.
The 35-year-old Lake St. Martin First Nation man spent two decades in and out of prison. Now he's focused on helping young men who need help getting off the streets or out of gangs.
"I personally meet them in the community. They want a better life for themselves, they want to get out of gangs, they don't want to do drugs," said Beardy.
"I was released from prison almost three years ago, but I've been changing internally for eight years at least. It's a journey — it's a journey for everybody," Beardy said.
"There was very little help for me, there was very little resources, and it took immense strength to get here."
He said while there's been a lot of attention paid to the issues surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, he wants people to remember the young men who are struggling too.
"I would say there is not enough space for Indigenous men in terms of healing, in terms of housing, in terms of social programs," he said.
"There's work being done, but there needs to be a lot more."
Beardy plans to expand his outreach to young men at risk of being recruited into gangs. He's currently working with Winnipeg police on an anti-gang video, funded by police, to be shown inside schools.
He has a message for youth who need help.
"I would say don't give up, and ask for help," he said. "I know it's difficult but you can find passion. You can set goals and have dreams."
More beds needed
Ndinawe's Cumby says the city needs more licensed shelter beds for youth, as the number of boys seeking refuge at Tina's Safe Haven continues to rise.
She said she sees many of them end up living in "toxic" rooming houses as they get older.
"Murder comes hand-in-hand with those rooming houses. A lot of them are violent, toxic environments for anybody to live in," she said. "We need beds, we need more resources, we need more workers out there."
Despite the need for more space, Cumby said they never turn kids away at Tina's Safe Haven.
"This is a very safe place, and we're very resourceful, and non-judgmental."