City shifts strategy after outcry on plans to dismantle Winnipeg homeless camps
City, Main Street Project collaborate to triage complaints, connect homeless with services before displacement
The City of Winnipeg is shifting how it deals with complaints of homeless camps following criticism of past plans to dismantle the places some call home.
The city's 311 service and Winnipeg police now share reports or complaints of homeless dwellings directly with Main Street Project — a community group that helps people living on the street — rather than focusing on taking down the tents, tarps and structures, said city spokesperson Ken Allen.
The city's public works and community services departments are working closely with Winnipeg police and community groups on these "due to their sensitive nature," he said in a statement.
Christopher, who told CBC News he lives on the streets, said the new move sounds like it is headed in the right direction.
He takes issue with people who call in complaints about homeless camps.
"I would prefer to ask that person, 'How will you stand to find me a place to sleep?'" he said.
Allen said the city is committed to working with Main Street Project, End Homelessness Winnipeg, Make Poverty History, Mama Bear Clan and other community groups and volunteers to carve a more inclusive path moving forward.
The new collaborative approach is only a couple of weeks old, and the impetus for the change stems from outcry from some of those same groups last month, said Adrienne Dudek.
In May, news spread of city plans to hire a contractor to clean up biohazards like needles, as well as dismantle "bulky waste" that made up "temporary homeless shelters." A number of advocates called out the plans.
"As a community we responded very strongly to voice our concerns around how to assist people who are living there and not just displace people who are ... already displaced," said Dudek.
"Co-ordinated through End Homelessness, we were able to meet with the city, and the city met us half way — the city was open to working with us."
Dudek said 311 has now committed to share complaints of homeless camps with Main Street Project within 48 hours. The police service is also making an effort to differentiate between what is a violent or immediate threat versus what may actually be a well-being check, she added.
Main Street Project will also help with recommendations for removing bulky waste when a situation appears to be resolved, she said.
"I think everyone [the city and police] is well aware right now that unless it's a safety threat or unless there's something immediately going on that the police need to respond to, there is no timeline."
Allan Par could be among the first wave of people living on the street to benefit from the new relationship.
Par built an elaborate shack from scavenged pallet wood and other discarded materials in the St. James area.
Winnipeg police investigated after reports of a disturbance off Empress Street, Const. Brian Boyd said last Tuesday.
He arrived to find Par wasn't disturbing anyone, and he just needed to be connected with services.
Boyd called a city social worker, who spoke with Par about his situation, and the case was then handed off to Main Street Project.
A crew of two outreach workers obtained consent from Par on Thursday to start looking for a more permanent home.
Tour Par's shack:
For now, Par's shack remains in place, despite it being against city bylaws, while housing experts work with him to find a more long-term solution.
Par seemed happy but skeptical about his prospects.
Lucille Bruce, president of End Homelessness Winnipeg, estimates there are 200 people living outdoors in the city like Par.
She said community workers, not officers or city workers, are best suited to help those on the streets.
"Building that relationship is really key because many people have lost trust with the systems," she said.
Police can't solve problem alone: officer
People who are homeless sometimes don't trust that uniformed police officers have their best interest at heart when they respond to a complaint about a temporary shelter, said Sgt. Brian Chrupalo, who works with the Winnipeg police community support unit.
"They see the uniform as a larger form of authority," he said.
The work being done "so they're more comfortable, so [community group workers] can talk to them on a different level, I think it's beneficial," he said.
"Stuff like this should be going on more."
Having the Winnipeg police community support unit working with groups like Main Street Project and End Homelessness Winnipeg is better for everyone, Chrupalo says.
"It's getting the community groups involved that have said they always should be involved," he said. "It's like the [police] chief has said: this is not a problem we're going to solve on our own."
No new funds
No new resources from the city have flowed to Main Street Project or End Homelessness, though Bruce said the city has suggested there could be funding available for the new initiative in the future
Long-term, Dudek anticipates the new model could lead to an increased workload for the organization.
She said there's always a need for more funding, resources and volunteers, and it's ultimately the responsibility of everyone in the community to care for those in need.
Substance use, mental health, trauma and poverty are at the root of the problem, said Dudek.
"Until we tackle those systemic issues and actually provide supports that people are dictating they will use, then we're not going to be able to make that imprint," she said.
Main Street Project and other community partners were expected to meet with city officials Tuesday to assess how the new model is working.