Winnipeg's homeless community, allies reeling after person dies in homeless encampment fire
'There was an explosion there simply because they're trying to keep warm in wintertime'
Advocates, outreach workers and a provincial politician are calling for more permanent solutions to homelessness in Winnipeg, after someone living in a homeless encampment died in a fire Tuesday morning.
"It's very unfortunate to see this happen," said Serge Uwimana, who worked with people living at the encampment near Higgins Avenue as a member of the outreach team at Resource Assistance for Youth Inc., a Winnipeg non-profit working with street-entrenched and homeless youth.
"People can't stay in the cold when it's -40. You're going to have a fire because you want to stay warm, and things are going to happen," said Uwimana.
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) was dispatched to an encampment near Higgins Avenue and Annabella Street in South Point Douglas around 11 a.m. Tuesday. When crews arrived, one of the shelters was engulfed in flames and smoke filled the encampment, the WFPS said in a news release.
Firefighters pulled a body from the ruins after extinguishing the blaze. The WFPS did not identify the gender of the victim.
No other injuries were reported. WFPS is investigating the incident, but at the moment firefighters believe the fire started by aerosol cans that combusted, the release says.
"It has been very devastating," said Mitch Bourbonniere, Mama Bear Clan captain.
"We're still not sure what happened yet. But from what we've heard [Tuesday], that's one of the people that we engage with and have a relationship with."
A large homeless encampment, set up on the property belonging to the Manitoba Metis Federation in downtown Winnipeg, was torn down last June. Some of the people living there moved near Higgins and Annabella, and the site has grown in the months since.
The encampment that caught fire Tuesday is one of several smaller, dispersed camps in the area, says Bourbonniere.
Fire emphasizes need for permanent solutions
People experiencing homelessness were left with fewer options for shelter when the city was put under level red COVID-19 restrictions on Nov. 2, 2020.
Among other things, the restrictions limited capacity at emergency shelters and the amount of time people could spend in them, because staff had to disinfect. They also forced places such as libraries and malls — where people can normally shelter from the cold during the day — to shut down.
Many people who are homeless in Winnipeg resorted to hunkering down in bus shelters or encampments — a brutal reality when having to endure the extreme cold that has gripped Manitoba the past couple of weeks.
"It is just really, really tragic," said Al Wiebe, homeless advocate.
"There was an explosion [at the encampment] simply because they're trying to keep warm in wintertime."
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont commented on the fatal fire during a scrum Tuesday, saying it reinforces why it's critical for people who are homeless to have proper shelter.
"It has been -40… in Winnipeg, and people don't have a warm place to go during the day — and sometimes don't have a safe place to go at night," Lamont said. "That's something that needs to be stepped up."
Wiebe commended outreach programs for stepping up over the past couple of weeks, and for fire stewards surveilling the camps. But he noted those are "Band-Aid solutions."
Advocates CBC News interviewed for this article pointed to affordable housing as the key step that will help people experiencing homelessness.
"The whole problem is that not enough money has been spent on permanent housing," said Wiebe, adding that the underfunding is a "systemic failure."
"That's the end game... That's what that program was about, putting people in houses — and we're simply not doing that."
In the meantime, the government should ask churches to open their doors to people living on the street, and open malls — Portage Place in particular — for seating alone and shelter during the daytime, Wiebe suggests.
With files from Jessica Piché and Patrick Foucault