Manitoba·URBAN MYTHS

Winnipeg addicts using meth to stay awake, warm at night

Winnipeg's growing meth crisis isn't limited to one part of the city. The West Broadway Community Ministry — a safe, tight-knit community — finds itself in the middle of the problem because addicts from all over Winnipeg are crashing there after a night of roaming the streets to stay alive.

Users crash inside West Broadway Community Ministry space to sleep off meth highs, staff report

David Robinson, interim community minister, says meth users come to the drop-in to sleep off days-long highs. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

By 10 a.m. in the West Broadway Community Ministry, the room is alive. People are playing cards, signing up for free showers and reading newspapers. Volunteers tell jokes and laugh as they craft homemade soup in the kitchen.

Despite the neighbourly hubbub, several people are fast asleep on benches at the far end of the room.

Interim community pastor David Robinson says it's common for drug users to come in and sleep off an extensive crystal meth high.

"The reality is, I think a lot of folks are using meth on the street in order to stay warm," he said.

"If you're on meth, you're up and you're moving and your metabolism is up. But if it wears off and you fall asleep, you will freeze to death."

While the majority of people who hang out at the ministry do so to socialize and be part of the neighbourhood, Robinson says, this tight-knit, safe community is dealing with the effects of Winnipeg's meth crisis.

'I thank God I got out when I did'

Anisha Saddler has been volunteering at the ministry for eight months. As a former crack-cocaine addict, she says she can relate to users who come to the ministry. But Winnipeg's meth scene is unlike anything she's seen before.

"I thank God I got out when I did because the meth crisis is ridiculous," she said. 

"I've had to implement getting locks and keys upstairs for all the washrooms because they're going up and there and they're getting caught shooting up in their legs, while there are students who are going to the school [on the same floor]."

Ministry volunteer Anisha Saddler says she can relate to meth addicts who feel debilitated by their addictions. Saddler is a recovering crack-cocaine addict who says Winnipeg should have more immediate access to detox programs. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

'It makes the ultimate soldier'

As the morning shifts to afternoon, people start waking up and making room for others to sit down and eat the hot soup that's served at 12:30 p.m.

Rick sits in the corner after lunch, chatting with the people around him. Rick doesn't didn't want to give his last name because he doesn't want people to know he spoke with CBC News. He says he uses meth "very little," and knows it's used to stay awake and warm during the brutal Winnipeg winter.

"It makes the ultimate soldier," he said. "You don't eat, you don't sleep. Your senses are heightened, but that's the only good thing about it. You just keep going and going."

Todd Donahue greets everyone at the West Broadway Community Ministry with a smile. The long-time mentor says he's seeing an increase in the number of people who are homeless and who use crystal meth. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

Todd Donahue, a long-time mentor at the ministry, meets with at least five people a day to help them receive anything from housing to detox options. It's during these meetings — and casual conversations between office hours — that Donahue hears from people who are using meth to stay awake.

"A lot of times, there's no room at the inn, so they have to walk," he said. "They can't stay in bus shelters because they get kicked out. People don't want them sleeping in their apartment lobbies, so there's no other alternative other than to walk around."

Donahue has had clients from across the city who ask him for help with their meth addictions. People travel in from East Kildonan, West Kildonan and Tuxedo neighbourhoods. He says it's very clear that the meth problem is wide-spread across Winnipeg, and isn't just a West Broadway issue.

Detox access needed

Staff say there are several things that could help the vast number of people using crystal meth — safe injection sites, easy and immediate access to detox programs, and wrap-around services that include transitional housing and supports for mental health.

Shelley Marshall is a public health nurse with Street Connections, a program from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority that offers Winnipeggers help with housing, addictions, food or legal issues.

In a statement to CBC News, Marshall says the use of stimulants to stay awake has been studied in other areas, such as Vancouver. While there are no current local studies, Marshall says, she has "no reason to believe it would be different in Winnipeg, particularly with our harsher climate."

The West Broadway Community Ministry is a safe place for neighbours to socialize and get a hot meal. Recently, it's been facing the effects of Winnipeg's meth crisis. (Sam Samson/CBC News)

Provincial strategy

A spokesperson from the province says the Manitoba government is working on a number of things to address the meth crisis, including developing a mental health and addictions strategy. That program will try to find ways to improve access to and co-ordination of mental health and addictions services in Manitoba. The final report is expected by the end of March. 

Robinson says the ministry's original purpose remains. It is, and will strive to remain, a safe place for anyone who needs help in the neighbourhood.

"[Meth] is part of the matrix. People are poor, they're struggling, so they're doing what they have to do to stay alive and to deal with their pain," he said. "Until we can find, as a society, a way to help them in a healthy way with their pain that they're willing to access, we need places like West Broadway."

Urban Myths is a CBC series that explores Manitoba communities and their sometimes surprising stories.

About the Author

Sam Samson

Journalist

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 samantha.samson@cbc.ca.

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