The extreme cold weather is posing a serious safety concern for Winnipeg’s homeless population, homelessness advocates and community services workers said.
With -40C winds blowing through the city, finding a warm place to shelter can mean life or death, says Marion Willis, founder and executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, an organization that opened a pop-up warming space on Sunday night.
“This is really a life-saving undertaking,” said Willis. “It's very important for this next week or so until this cold snap ends.”
The temporary shelter, created in collaboration with Holy Cross Church, will provide a hot meal and a safe space to keep warm until the end of this winter, should there be any other extreme cold snaps.
But Willis wants to see a permanent shelter put in place, pointing out that there is little infrastructure available to those without shelter in the area.
“There should not be another winter ahead where St. Boniface doesn’t have a permanent shelter,” said Willis.
Tragically, a life was lost this weekend in the St. Boniface area, with a man found deceased outside during the extreme cold snap.
Winnipeg Police say a man was found dead outside near the 600 block of Des Meurons Street on Saturday evening.
“That provides you all the evidence that you need that providing this type of a service is a life-saving service,” said Willis.
“I just feel horrible that there was someone who obviously needed help.”
The danger posed by the extreme cold to those without permanent housing is a city-wide issue.
To help, community organizer Michael Redhead Champagne would like to see public buildings currently closed due to the pandemic, like libraries or community centres, opened up to those in need.
“To me, those are the natural places we should be looking if we want to find spaces to allow our relatives who sleep outside to stay warm,” Champagne said.
As a longer-term solution, Champagne would also like to see investments made into affordable housing, a sentiment echoed by the Manitoba Liberal caucus in a report on homelessness released over the weekend.
Champagne contributed to the report.
"When we live in a city that's as wealthy Winnipeg that has the housing stock that we have, I feel like we are in a position to allow everyone who wants a house to have one,” Champagne said.
Winnipeggers are also taking it upon themselves to help homeless people amid the extremely cold weather.
Raymond Ducharme collected donations from his family over the weekend to purchase sleeping bags and winter clothes for those out in the cold.
With help from his church, Encounter Life Ministries, he also collaborated in providing warm meals to those in need.
“For those less fortunate, it’s cold, and everybody deserves to be warm,” said Ducharme.
David Harper felt the same and made a call-out on Facebook asking for donations of any sort to help anyone without shelter make it through the night.
“We’ve been getting a lot of response from people and they want to help,” said Harper, adding that many of the city’s shelters are reaching capacity every night.
He, along with several others, went out to provide blankets, coffee and other items to those in need Sunday night and plan to do so again Monday night.
Harper, who is a former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief, says people are building their own shelters under bridges in the city where it can get even colder than -40C in the night.
He worries about young people in these situations, but he is especially worried about older individuals.
“The elderly…they really need a lot of good warmth,” said Harper.
Terri Reilly, who lives in Selkirk, saw Harper’s Facebook post and was inspired to do what she could to help the vulnerable in Winnipeg.
She made her own Facebook post asking the Selkirk community to donate any sleeping bags or winter clothing they may have available. Within five hours, says Reilly, her truck was full.
Reilly, along with her daughters and a friend, then drove into Winnipeg Sunday night and worked alongside Harper by providing various items to those in need.
“I needed to go and take these to these people,” said Reilly. “Who do they have, really? If they had someone, they probably wouldn’t be out on the streets.”