Winnipeg's 3rd full street census suggests thousands experiencing homelessness in the city
‘I don't think anyone should be living this way,’ says 23-year-old who wintered in a tent
Sage Meeches lives in a tent in one of the many homeless encampments along the Red River in Winnipeg.
The 23-year-old from Portage la Prairie says she's been on the street for two years.
She ended up homeless after a family dispute and a "rough patch."
"Ever since then, I've just been on foot," Meeches said in an interview outside her tent.
First, she lived with someone. Then she was "couch surfing with friends." She moved into the camp last winter.
That winter — her first one outside — Winnipeg got more snow than any other winter for 100 years.
"Living this way — I don't think anyone should be living this way. It's not right," Meeches said.
Meeches is one of the thousands of people the 2022 Winnipeg Street Census estimates are experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg.
More than 1,200 without homes
The survey, which was launched Wednesday at Siloam Mission, reached over 1,200 people in the city without homes, and the researchers say that number doesn't reflect the size of the problem.
Over a 24-hour period in May, 166 volunteers talked to people in shelters, transitional housing sites, bottle depots and community agencies, walking over 100 kilometres of city streets.
The survey reached more than 200 fewer people than in 2018, the last pre-pandemic survey, but there were half the number of volunteers this year. COVID-19 public health practices also limited how they could interact with those they surveyed.
"The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg are Indigenous," the study said, based on responses from 75 per cent of respondents.
The age people most frequently said they first became homeless was 18, which is when Meeches first was without a home.
More than half of those surveyed said they'd been homeless for more than a year.
The survey doesn't capture people experiencing "hidden homelessness" — those couch surfing with friends or staying with family members — who wouldn't generally be in the locations the volunteers visited, the researchers said. They estimate that population was undercounted "by at least 4,000 people," based on a ratio of three people for every one person experiencing absolute homelessness.
The cold is just one of many challenges Meeches has faced living outside.
She says she has to muster up "courage and bravery to get through the process" of signing up for things like identification, which she needs to access formal support systems.
"I haven't graduated. I haven't lived my life properly. I haven't had my own home to call a home. I haven't had a licence and job, no experience or nothing," she said.
Meeches relies on services provided by non-profit organizations serving people experiencing homelessness.
She rides her bicycle to Main Street Project, where she showers. She recently signed up for a health card at St. Boniface Street Links and she hopes they'll help her with her IDs.
Despite that help, it's been a lonely road, Meeches said.
"Trying to find someone that's going to help you, build you up again, someone that's going to help you get out there and be support with you like a companion — that's the hardest thing," she said.
WATCH | Sage Meeches describes what life without a proper home is like:
Urgent need for affordable housing
Caryn Birch, director of education at Resource Assistance for Youth (RaY), a non-profit organization that serves young people experiencing homelessness, said there's an urgent need for housing units affordable enough for young people.
There's "a disconnect" between the money people who depend on financial assistance get from the government and what it costs to rent a decent place, Birch said.
"Average rent right now in Winnipeg is over $1,000, whereas certain financial bodies are paying just over half of what that would look like, so it makes it access to the housing market that much more difficult," she said.
RaY has seen an increase in young people using drop-in services since the pandemic started.
The lack of connection between what property owners charge and what people can pay is driving more young people into dangerous living situations, Birch said.
Meeches suggests the government "take a long thought" about what people experiencing homelessness go through.
"For me it's kind of hard. It's actually more than hard. I've been through more than enough that I've had enough," she said.
"Find another resource that's going to open up big for us and help us get through this all together like one big family."