New 24/7 youth safe space in West End busier than expected, organizer says

Winnipeg youth in the West End are showing up in droves at a 24-hour drop-in centre that opened earlier this summer, exceeding the expectations of organizers.

Spence Neighbourhood Association says lack of funding will force centre to reduce hours in fall

Kids who had nowhere to go at night can now head to the Magnus Eliason Recreation Centre on weekends and holidays. However, once school gets underway this fall, the centre will only be open on weekends. (Google Maps)

Winnipeg youth in the West End are showing up in droves at a 24-hour drop-in centre that opened earlier this summer, exceeding the expectations of organizers.

"It means everything to me [and] all of my friends," said R.J. Chief, 21. "We all just walk in a group like one big family."

The Magnus Eliason Recreation Centre has been overwhelmed with the demand since it opened full-time June 17 using a combination of fundraising and government investment.

The centre gives youth a safe space off the streets, night and day, where they can hang out with friends and get a snack.

Lin Howes, program manager at the Spence Neighbourhood Association, said the centre was open only on weekends in June. It opened for 24 hours a day throughout July and had more than 550 youth come through over the span of 280 hours.
Youth show support for the Spence Neighbourhood Association's West End 24/7 Safe Space drop-in campaign in 2015. It raised $35,000 and the province kicked in an additional $380,000. (Trevor Dineen)

"It was a lot busier than we had anticipated," Howes said. "We had a lot more numbers right off the bat, and we're doing the best we can with the number of youth that are coming in the door."

Right now, the bulk of youth using the drop-in fall within the 18- to 23-year-old category, Howes said.

For the most part, they're just looking for a safe place to go and the "warm and welcoming environment."

"Our staff are highly trained and experienced and really wonderful and loving people. A lot of them are community members," Howes said.

While it's too soon to say exactly how the centre is changing the neighbourhood, Howes said it's clear youth in the area needed a positive space, she said.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Howes said.

"One of the real defining characteristics of the population is that we see that folks that are coming in that are just really lovely people that just need a little bit extra.… Having all those people connected in one spot together means that as a staff, we can have all the resources available in one spot with the most vulnerable, most at-need group right there accessing those services."

The Spence Neighbourhood Association would like to see other centres copy its model and improve access to the same services across the city, she said.

Due to a lack of funding, once school starts, the centre will only be open 24 hours during the weekend — something that concerns Howes in light of the early influx of youth.

"We would love to be open seven days a week. At this time, the bottom line just doesn't add up to be able to do that," she said.

The centre is looking for more volunteers and donations of toiletry items such as shampoo and soap. More information is available online at the West End 24/7 Safe Space Facebook page.