COVID-19 forces social agencies to eliminate open-door policies on Selkirk Avenue

Selkirk Avenue is a hub for social assistance agencies. But COVID-19 has forced them to physically lock up, and even reduce their services.

Bear Clan among groups changing how they offer resources to some of Winnipeg's most vulnerable people

Dennis Bonin lines up for free food from the Bear Clan on Selkirk Avenue. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Life has changed on Selkirk Avenue.

Social assistance groups that once invited people in for advice, help or a cup of coffee are now locking up — trying to practise social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. But some say that could be creating more problems for vulnerable people.

"Sometimes it's difficult for them to access services, and services being reduced like that just creates more barriers," said Dawn Sands, executive director for North End Community Renewal Corporation.

The corporation helps low-income Manitobans find employment, driver's licences and housing. Last week, it shut down one of its three offices in the North End, and is no longer allowing walk-ins. Sands said they're still helping their clients over the phone and by appointment, but it's harder to reach people who are transient now that they can't just walk in.

Sands said she knows the province won't allow evictions during the pandemic, but people play by different rules in her neighbourhood.

A sign posted on the doors of a North End Community Renewal Corporation office on Selkirk Avenue. The office is normally open to walk-ins. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"There are illegal evictions that happen in this community all the time that don't go through the process," she said. "How do we reach those people and provide support when they're being evicted in such a way that doesn't follow proper protocol?"

Other groups are adapting, too. 

Tina's Safe Haven — which is operated by Ndinawe, a non-profit that works with at-risk youth — will be closed during the day, but is still providing bagged lunches for young people during those hours.

The safe haven, formerly called the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre, is also still allowing young people to stay in the evening and overnight.

The popular weekly event Meet Me at the Bell Tower has been cancelled until further notice because it goes against the province's rules to avoid gathering in large groups.

A Bear Clan member hands out free food to people from the doorway of their building on Selkirk Avenue. They're not allowing people inside, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Sam Samson/CBC)

The Bear Clan's Wednesday night patrols in the North End usually bring out large groups of volunteers. Now, only two people are cruising in a vehicle. The group also normally gives away free food almost daily, but now that's being cut down, too.

"The community is still functioning full-on," said Bear Clan Patrol founder James Favel. 

"The resources need to be here and what we're seeing is a lack of resources at this point, so we're trying to be one of the ones that stays and gets the job done."

'We're all in this together,' despite income

On Wednesday, hundreds of people formed a line trailing down Selkirk Avenue, staying two metres apart, to wait for their food.

A line forms down Selkirk Avenue, where people are trying to stay two metres apart. They're waiting for free food from the Bear Clan. (Sam Samson/CBC)

For people like Dennis Bonin, that food is essential. He lives with mental health issues, and is staying in a rooming house a few blocks off Selkirk Avenue. He says he's seeing more couch-surfing strangers since COVID-19 hit Manitoba.

"All the people coming into the house are using the washrooms, coughing, hacking. I didn't like that before, but now with the pandemic, it's heightened it," he said.

"I've been trying to get out of this place. That's my main goal is the housing. But (self quarantine) is making me feel more trapped."

Bonin's in-person counselling is now happening over the phone. He says he's frustrated because the local, free laundromat is now closed, and he's unsure how sustainable life is in his community if the different agencies are closed for months.

"Whether we're in a lower income bracket or a higher income bracket, we're all in this together," he said. "But we have less resources available to us."

Some groups that help vulnerable people are reducing or changing their services to practice social distancing. 3:01


  • An earlier version of this story said, based on information from Ndinawe, that the organization's youth resource centre was no longer allowing people to stay there because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, Tina's Safe Haven (formerly known as Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre) is still allowing young people to stay in the evening and overnight. It will be closed during the day, but will still provide bagged lunches for youth during those hours.
    Mar 27, 2020 12:05 PM CT

About the Author

Sam Samson


Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email