Winnipeggers sleeping in bus shacks may decline emergency shelters for good reasons: advocate
Quickly-spreading COVID-19, concerns about violence and drug use keeping people in cold, says advocate
Groups that work to help people experiencing homelessness say many people choose to stay in transit shelters because they're afraid of catching COVID-19, they're afraid of violence in shelters or they live with mental health issues that require more support.
"We exhaust our resources with them," said Zya Duval, an outreach navigator with St. Boniface Street Links. The patrol group works to build relationships with people experiencing homelessness to get to the root of their problems. Duval said they offer rides to shelters, but some people won't budge.
"We give them every option that is available to get housed, and if they decline, well if we have blankets, if we have jackets — whatever we have to get, we will offer them. We go back and we check on them daily, and that's all that we can really do if they don't want to come with us."
Even after weeks of bitter cold, Jay Hazel and his wife still prefer to sleep in the transit shelter at the southeast corner of Osborne Street and Broadway Avenue than at a homeless shelter.
"We want to be together," said Hazel on Monday, gesturing to his wife who was asleep on the heated bus bench next to him while the afternoon temperature hovered around –22C.
"We've been together 12 years, and a lot of places split you up."
Hazel has stayed at this bus shelter for a month — he moved in after the shelter on the other side of the intersection burned to the ground. He and others in Winnipeg have converted bus shelters to temporary homes, including makeshift doors and mattresses.
Duval said she's seen the number of people living in bus shelters has gone down. Now, it's mostly people who live with mental health issues or who fear for their safety if they were to live in a homeless shelter.
"I understand that they don't want the help, but it hurts the heart walking away and knowing that they're still sitting there," she said.
Shelters at capacity
There are 681 spaces in emergency shelters and units in Winnipeg, according to End Homelessness Winnipeg. The organization couldn't speak to domestic violence spaces, but states the adult and youth spots have all been at or over capacity since the winter started.
"Almost everyone impacted by homelessness wants a warm, private, comfortable and safe place to stay. Congregate emergency shelters cannot offer all of that," said Kris Clemens, manager of communications and community relations at End Homelessness Winnipeg, in an email.
"More emergency beds are not going to fix the problem of people choosing a bus shelter over the emergency shelter. Permanent, safe, private, low-income, low-barrier and supportive housing options are the only solution."
Staff at 1JustCity agree.
Interim executive director Glynis Quinn said she believes getting someone into housing must include resources for addictions and mental health issues, but only if that person knows what they want.
"You make sure they're fed. You make sure they have access to water. You make sure they have access to warm clothing, to sleeping bags and those kinds of things," said Quinn.
"The only thing that we can do is maintain their health and make sure that they don't lose their limbs after the winter."
Quinn said having people live in shelters isn't only dangerous to their health, but it affects transit riders, too.
"What I'm seeing are the bus shelters are actually cut off from access to people using the bus because they're being blocked at the doors. So that nobody else can get in," she said.
Doors, benches removed due to vandalism, says transit
Quinn said she's heard some bus shelters have had doors and heated benches removed this winter.
"Whether there's a door or not, I don't think it's going to stop people," said Quinn.
"If they don't want to go into a shelter for warmth, then they're going to make it wherever they can. People living down by the river, people living under the bridges — it's the same thing."
Those doors and heated benches were removed due to vandalism, a city spokesperson said.
Out of 170 heated shelters in Winnipeg, city staff have removed doors from 11 sites and heated benches from six sites — all of which will be replaced.
"It isn't because we're trying to kick anyone out or make it inhabitable," said Fort-Rouge East Fort Garry councillor Sherri Rollins.
"It is really important to state, though, that transit shelters are really for people who are on transit and not necessarily ever meant to be a temporary homeless shelter the way they've been used during the pandemic," she said.
The city's committee on protection and community services has asked the city for a report on how many calls the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has gotten to transit shelters. Rollins said that report will probably be delayed until February due to complications sorting data.