Indigenous overrepresentation in homeless census points to 'lack of progress' on housing, organizer says

More than 1,000 people in Winnipeg were experiencing homelessness over one 24-hour period earlier this year — and Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in Winnipeg's homeless population, according to a new report.

Hampered by pandemic safety concerns, but census provides 1st snapshot of homeless population in 3 years

A homeless encampment under a Winnipeg bridge this fall. Though limited in scope due to the pandemic, the latest homelessness street census still offers a valuable snapshot of the challenges people without a permanent place to stay face in the city, the report's authors say. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

More than 1,000 people in Winnipeg were experiencing homelessness over one 24-hour period earlier this year — and Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in Winnipeg's homeless population, according to a new report.

"The report confirms what was observed by many community organizations and Winnipeg residents during the pandemic: increased visibility of unsheltered homelessness," said Kristiana Clemens, community relations manager with End Homelessness Winnipeg, which co-ordinated the 2021 interim street census report, released Tuesday.

"And of course, the continued trend of the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in homelessness."

For the latest report, 1,127 people experiencing varying levels of homelessness were counted through a variety of methods during a 24-hour period on April 21 and 22.

The new report says a third of those counted in the census — 370 — were unsheltered people living in parks, bus shelters, entryways and vacant lots, and not accessing emergency supports.

In the last street census — conducted in 2018 — the proportion of unsheltered people was under 15 per cent.

However, End Homelessness Winnipeg cautions that due to the pandemic, 2021 results can't be directly compared to more robust efforts in 2015 and 2018, which involved hundreds of volunteers fanning across the city.

Pandemic health rules and concerns about gatherings presented challenges to gauging the scope of the issue in this year's survey.

Manitoba's pandemic response system was at its highest level — red, or critical — when the 24-hour census was done. Staff with 15 different organizations collected what limited information they could.

Organizers say the report still offers a valuable snapshot of the challenges people are facing without a permanent place to stay.

The census counted 300 people across four emergency shelters, along with 229 in 24/7 safe spaces, 174 in transitional housing, and 54 observed in various encampments through the city.

That total tally is about 400 lower than the last census in 2018.

Deceptive drop

The apparent drop may not capture the full picture of what's happening on the ground, according to one of the organizations that participated in the report.

Marion Willis, the executive director of Morberg House and St. Boniface Street Links, suggested the true figure could be considerably higher.

That's due in part to the "hidden homeless" — people who have temporary shelter, but don't necessarily stay in one place for long — or because of the dynamic nature in which some populations move around the city seasonally, she said.

In St. Boniface alone, where Willis says homelessness has surged, Street Links workers may encounter 20 people one day and nearly 70 another in the same area.

There are more tent encampments than ever before, and they're spread farther across the city, magnifying the challenges of canvassing all known locations in a day, said Willis.

The 24-hour census format has always faced those challenges, she said, and adding in pandemic restrictions complicated efforts further.

"It's really hampered, I suppose, by the limitations imposed to our outreach teams — their ability to actually really get out there and make contact in our vast coverage areas now," she said.

Willis would like to see a shared database that outreach organizations could update more frequently throughout the year with demographic information.

Indigenous-led solutions needed

In spite of its limitations, the report suggests some broad trends in the city's homeless population.

Nearly half of the people using emergency shelters and transitional housing spaces were between the ages of 25 and 49, it says, and at least two-thirds were Indigenous.

That continued overrepresentation of Indigenous people is linked to the legacy of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, child welfare issues and inequitable funding, said Clemens.

That points to a need for more Indigenous-led housing solutions, she said.

"The fact that we have not made headway on reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in homelessness in the inner city does speak to the lack of progress overall in our steps toward reconciliation."

About 70 per cent of people counted at shelters, transitional housing and safe spaces were men, while over 27 per cent were women. More than one per cent were gender diverse people, according to the report.

Nearly a quarter (22 per cent) encountered in those spaces were unaccompanied youth age 24 or younger. A similar proportion of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 were also observed.

Meanwhile, four per cent were over 65, and another four per cent were children with a parent.

The 2018 census found similar percentages of parents with kids, said Clemens, but that signals little progress was made in the intervening years.

"It's heartbreaking," she said. "We think that there's safe places for families to raise their children and yet we're finding this cohort of families that have no place to call home."

Flexible housing options needed

Benjamin Simcoe, housing co-ordinator with the Spence Neighbourhood Association, said the pandemic also exacerbated issues with the income support system.

More flexible options are needed for those who are used to living in encampments and may at first be reluctant to accept traditional housing, said Simcoe.

"If we had housing available for them we knew that they wouldn't lose … sort of no strings attached, [then] they can take some time to get used to the idea," he said.

Clemens said Winnipeg's supply of low-income rental housing has actually moved backward during during the pandemic.

She hopes the report will act as a call to action to make progress on housing solutions.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.