Scores of kids seek shelter every night at drop-in centre named after Tina Fontaine

A safe haven created in honour of Tina Fontaine is seeing too many kids living on the streets and needing access to a bed every night, according to the youth advocates who operate it.

Drop-in centre Tina's Safe Haven takes in 50 kids every night

Tina's Safe Haven located on Selkirk Avenue is the only 24/7 drop-in centre for at risk teens in Winnipeg. The centre was created in 2018 and named after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, who was found dead in the Red River in August 2014. (Jeff Stapleton CBC)

A safe haven created in honour of Tina Fontaine is seeing too many kids living on the streets and needing access to one of its beds, say its operators.

Tina's Safe Haven, which opened its doors in November 2018 on Selkirk Avenue, is full to bursting every night with 50 beds taken up by at-risk kids ages 13-24. 

Tammy Christensen, executive director of Ndinawe which operates Tina's Safe Haven, said that's way too busy for her liking. 

"We have a safe house that never really sees an empty bed. As soon as one is vacated, we have another person to fill that bed," said Christensen. "So we're not seeing a decrease in the demand. If anything, we're seeing an increase."

The centre's outreach program is also in touch with about 150 young teens living on the street on any given day who are vulnerable to exploitation, she said.

The safe house was named after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was pulled from the Red River in August 2014. The girl's death made national headlines and shone a light on issues surrounding the deaths of Indigenous girls, sparking a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The fifth year anniversary of Fontaine's death was this past Saturday.

The safe house has filled a vacuum as the only drop-in centre for at-risk teens in Winnipeg that is open 24 hours, seven days a week. Yet it's heart-breaking for operators to see so many vulnerable young girls, like Tina was, coming through its doors. 

"Unfortunately [this place] came too late for Tina. But we honour her memory not only through naming the centre after her, but the idea that she represented a lot of what we see here, a lot of young girls and young men in Tina's situation every day," Christensen said.

Tammy Christensen, is the executive director of Ndinawe, which runs Tina's Safe Haven, a 24/7 drop-in centre for at risk youth in Winnipeg. She says demand for beds has increased since it first opened a year and half ago. (Jeff Stapleton (CBC))

The kids struggle with a range of issues, mostly trauma, she said. 

"And it's trauma that is not being addressed. Whether it's a family breakdown, or kids exiting the system and don't have appropriate resources or supports in place, these young people are not getting what they need."

Christensen said addiction and mental health issues play a major role when young girls are sexually exploited and living on the streets.

"This is how kids are coping with the trauma, this is how they deal with the trauma," she said, adding she's noticing kids younger than 13-years-old accessing their services.

"Whatever we can do to help them in that moment and get them the proper resources at that sort of ground level to start them on a journey to wellness, that's good for us to be able to do that."

For example, Tina's Safe House has a shower. "People don't realize that access to something as simple as having a shower, those basic daily needs are not being met for these kids," Christensen said. 

Systematic change needed

She said systematic change is needed, and current systems are overburdened and not meeting the needs of young people.

Dianne Redsky, executive director at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, a gathering place dedicated to helping Indigenous families in the city, said there has been progress but more is needed.

 "As I reflect back over the last 5 years, we still have a long way to go," said Redsky. 

For example, while Tina's Safe House is on Selkirk Avenue, there's great need for something similar in west central Winnipeg. 

"There's no shortage of perpetrators"

"Girls continue to remain at risk, we still have young girls that are on the streets late at night, and there's no shortage of perpetrators," she said.

Redsky said more public education and awareness is needed to track potential predators.

"As long as we normalize sexual exploitation, we will always have perpetrators that feel that's their free pass and say, 'Oh I didn't know she was under 18,'" she said. "We have to address the demand and we have to go after these guys, and there's no shortage of them."