Winnipeg charity that offers housing, employment fears losing building
Sscope signed 1-year lease with credit union to rent Neechi Commons but now needs to purchase property
A Winnipeg social enterprise that provides housing, support and employment for people with addictions and mental health challenges fears it may have to move if it can't purchase its building.
Sscope — which stands for Self-starting Creative Opportunities for People in Employment — began renting the former Neechi Commons building on Main Street one year ago.
The organization provides a 24-hour drop-in, offering meals, activities and housing.
Right now 46 people live at Sscope, executive director Angela McCaughan said.
"Many of the people that stay with us are banned from other shelters, mainly because of mental health or behavioural issues. So they cannot go anywhere else," she said.
Sscope began leasing the 50,000 square foot space from Assiniboine Credit Union in August 2020, under an agreement the charity would purchase it after one year.
The credit union took control of the building after Neechi Commons closed five years earlier, plagued by financial issues. The space had largely sat empty until Sscope moved in.
McCaughan said Sscope has until the end of the month to purchase the building. They had hoped the province would come through to fund it, but hasn't.
"The provincial government is responsible for housing. They need to help us house these people," she said.
Sscope can make the mortgage payments, McCaughan said, but needs $1.3 million for a down payment and renovations. The group has started an online campaign to raise $100,000 from the public.
"We're not looking for long-term funding because we're sustainable as a social enterprise," she said, adding that the people who live in the housing also get jobs to help run the facility.
Sscope also has other businesses in the community, doing lawn work and collecting recyclables.
McCaughan says the model gives those experiencing addiction and homelessness a leg up.
"People just need a chance, and they need purpose, and they need some guidance, and relationships," she said.
That's been the case for Peter Astakeesic. Two months ago, he was addicted to meth.
Now he has a room and a job, and is starting a course as an addictions counsellor — all thanks to Sscope, he says.
'Fell into place'
"I was just an addict like a lot of other people that come here," he said. "It straightened me out and got me going in the right direction."
Now the 51-year-old Saulteaux man from Waywayseecappo First Nation works at Sscope, doing everything from cleaning, cooking and laundry to helping new visitors.
"I came here. Everything just fell into place. And everything just got better and better each day," he said. "I've come a long way in a short time."
Now he's excited to start a new career and reunite with his twin adult daughters.
Astakeesic said if he hadn't come into Sscope, he isn't sure what would have happened to him.
"I might have been dead," he said. "I'm just glad I'm here right now."
Most of the people who use Sscope are Indigenous, and many are survivors of residential schools or their descendants, McCaughan said.
A lot of the people Sscope works with have trauma and experience homelessness and addiction.
Over the last year of the pandemic, Sscope kept its doors open as other organizations closed theirs, McCaughan said.
"During the pandemic, the City of Winnipeg [and] the province abandoned these people. They closed their doors to everything. We're the only public washroom for miles around here," she said.
The provincial government said it provides Sscope with $589 a month for about 10 people they house who receive welfare. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority also gives Sccope just over $100,000 a year for an employment program.
A spokesperson for the provincial government says Sscope should be applying for funding through the federal government, but McCaughan said the federal government told her that housing falls primarily with the provinces.
Kris Clemens with End Homelessness Winnipeg said she's not surprised that Sscope would be facing challenges in getting the money to buy the building.
"When you're in a grassroots organization that's focused really on the person being served, and running an around-the-clock operation, providing safe space to folks during a pandemic, it's not surprising that some of those hoops to jump through might seem overly onerous and challenging," she said.
There are few organizations in the province that have stable funding for their day-to-day operations and for bigger projects like buying or building housing, Clemens said. The process of applying for money often takes years and can involve working through multiple layers of bureaucracy, she said.
"That's part of why it's so remarkable when an agency like Sscope can expand so rapidly and move into a large space like it has this past year," she said.