Winnipeg social advocates ask Santa for more housing this Christmas

Enlisting volunteers and soliciting donations is relatively easy during the holidays. Both jobs become more difficult after that - especially when it comes to finding people a roof to place over their heads.

A plea for year-round generosity made as Siloam feeds another 600 mouths

Charlene and Dwight Lacquette, and their kids Draven and Delaney, were among 600 guests at Siloam Mission's Christmas Eve lunch. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Every day of the year, staff and volunteers at downtown Winnipeg's Siloam Mission serve about 500 people three meals a day.

On Christmas Eve, it's more like 600 over the lunch hour, including some families that would have no holiday meal if it wasn't for Siloam.

"There would be lot of sitting at home. It's a good thing that they do here. It's good for the community," said North End resident Dwight Lacquette, who has attended seven consecutive Christmas Eve lunches at Siloam Mission.

About 50 volunteers helped Siloam serve its annual holiday meal, which required 500 pounds of potatoes, 120 turkey breasts and 60 litres of gravy.

Enlisting volunteers and soliciting donations is relatively easy during the holidays. Both jobs become more difficult after the holidays, Siloam spokesperson Luke Thiessen said.

"Our donations and our volunteerism — all of those things ramp up to the holidays — and they tank after that. It's important that people know the need is year round," Thiessen said in Siloam's kitchen.

The biggest task for Siloam is finding somewhere for people to live. The mission's 110-bed shelter is full every night, he said. He looks forward to the mission's $19-million expansion, which will add another 41 beds next spring.

Since 2011, Siloam has also operated an 85-room housing facility on Evanson Street in Wolseley. Winnipeg could still use thousands more social housing units, along with the mental-health and addictions-treatment support to help the people who need these spaces, said Jim Bell, Siloam's CEO.

Charity and volunteerism only goes so far, he said.

"We appreciate all that people do in this community and what they do to support other organizations, but as we look at the big picture, it's housing and the support mechanisms around housing that will truly have a positive impact on what we call challenges," Bell said.

Siloam Mission guests enjoyed a meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, veggies, cole slaw, stuffing and cranberry sauce, as well as fruit and pie. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

There are about 1,500 homeless people in Winnipeg, and tens of thousands more who live in substandard housing or are at risk of being homeless, according to a count conducted in 2018.

Ken Wiebe is one of them. The former Portage la Prairie resident, who got out of jail on Dec. 19, is living in a Main Street hotel as he attempts to find a space in a Manitoba Housing building.

"I've been asking my worker to help me and there's still nothing yet. It takes about a year to get in," he said, while he was attending his first Siloam Christmas Eve lunch.

While single-resident-occupancy hotels like the one Wiebe calls home relieve some of Winnipeg's housing pressure, they are entirely unsuitable for families at risk of homelessness.

Social Planning Council of Winnipeg director Kate Kehler said the city is in desperate need of more large social housing units.

"What we do have is still very small," she said. "We have larger families — especially Indigenous families and newcomer families tend to be large — so we don't have units," she said.

Kehler said governments should add at least 300 more units a year. Bell said 500 would be a good start and then governments could move from there.

Wiebe said he is grateful for the support he is receiving and believes Winnipeg is a caring place.

"You have to pay attention to everybody, every year, all year round, no matter what situation they're in," he said.

About 50 volunteers helped serve the Christmas lunch. (Justin Fraser/CBC)