Manitoba

Winnipeg's homelessness street census helps break down stigmas, build up programming, volunteers say

Winnipeg's first in-person street census in four years was launched Wednesday to gather information about the extent and nature of homelessness and bring some dignity to those experiencing it.

'We need to realize that they are our peers, nothing more and nothing less'

A person sleeps on bench in Winnipeg Transit bus shelter in December 2020. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Winnipeg's first in-person street census in four years was launched Wednesday to gather information about the extent and nature of homelessness and bring some dignity to those experiencing it.

Al Wiebe, a neighbourhood co-ordinator for the event and someone who spent more than two years on the streets, said the data that's gathered raises awareness and breaks down stigmas.

"It really brings clarity to who the people who experience homelessness are. They're like you and me, and that's something we tend to forget," he said.

"We need to realize that they are our peers, nothing more and nothing less."

The street census is a point-in-time count done — in partnership with about two dozen local community agencies, non-profits and volunteers — over a 24-hour period.

The aim is to get a snapshot of how many people are experiencing homelessness in shelters and on the streets in that particular moment.

In addition to an overall tally, volunteers conducting the survey try to gather demographic data like age, gender, Indigeneity, newcomer status and sexual orientation.

They try to learn how people became homeless and where they stayed the night before the survey. 

No personal identifying information is collected, said Jason Whitford, CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg, which is the organization hosting the census in partnership with the Social Planning Council.

"Today there will be hundreds of volunteers and outreach teams travelling to different parts of the city, to where encampments may be, to public places where unsheltered individuals may be harbouring," he said at the event's launch, outside of N'Dinawemak, a shelter next to the Disraeli Freeway for marginalized and vulnerable people.

Every few years, communities across the country participate in similar point-in-time counts, which help contribute to a national picture, said a release from End Homelessness Winnipeg.

A person sleeps on the pavement on Maryland Street in 2017, not far from where a national convention on homelessness was held later in the month. (Bert Savard/Radio-Canada)

Winnipeg's first street census took place in 2015 and the second in 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the counts to be put off for a couple of years, though an interim one was done in 2021 without an in-person survey component.

"Today is the day. It's a long time coming," Whitford said.

The 2015 census found about 1,400 people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg, while the 2018 census found about 1,500.

Before the 2022 census started, there was a call-out for volunteers. Volunteers were given training sessions on surveying, interview methods, cultural and personal safety, and confidentiality and consent.

They are being deployed in small outreach teams to interact with the people they encounter who may be experiencing varying degrees of homelessness, Whitford said.

'A voice to be heard'

In addition to the information gathered by the teams, some data is provided by agencies and governments about people staying in institutional settings like hospitals or prisons who do not have a permanent address.

The information collected will be used to better understand homelessness, help frame the efforts to address it and provide insight into which resources are most effective.

The census gives the homeless community "a voice, to be heard on what they need done, instead of us telling people what they want," said Jacob Kaufman, a peer advocate with Winnipeg's Main Street Project.

He grew up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as a homeless youth but has been off the street for 22 years.

"But they're still my community," he said.

The final report from the census will be available in October.

It is funded by the federal government through its program Reaching Home: Canada's Homelessness Strategy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

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