Dougald Lamont at the Manitbaa Legislature, Feb 7 (Source: Pool)

As temperatures plunge, the Manitoba Liberals are calling on governments to act immediately to address the province's vulnerable population, getting people out of bus shelters and into a home of their own.

As part of their homeless report released Sunday, the party is recommending 24-hour warming centres, free masks in bus shelters, and a central command centre to respond to homeless calls, all to be put in effect within days.

With extreme cold warnings in effect for much of the province, and temperatures forecasted to remain there for the next few days, Dougald Lamont, MLA for St. Boniface and Leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, stressed the importance of decisive action.

"It's really important we act on this right now," said Dougald Lamont in a media briefing Sunday.

Lamont said the increased use of bus shelters by the homeless population is a consequence of few, if any, shelters offering 24-hour space for clients, a situation made worse by the pandemic.

"In normal times, they are able to go to a mall, they are able to go to coffee shops and libraries. They are able to find a place that's warm. Because of the pandemic, all that has been shut down," said Lamont.

Lamont said one solution could be the opening vacant or unused city or private buildings, community centres or churches. A recommendation for increased signage in bus shelters directing people to available supports was also included.

In the long term, faster access to social assistance programs like EIA, the employment and income assistance program, could prevent homelessness before it starts. According to Jon Gerrard, MLA for River Heights, for the already homeless, finding a home is paramount.

"The only that we are going to be able to get people quickly into something that resembles a home more than a bus shelter is to put them in hotels," he said.

Gerrard said the pandemic has exposed problems in the way the issue of homelessness has been addressed. He cited an available $500 million pandemic-related federal fund to purchase hotels to house vulnerable populations.

In September of 2020, the federal Liberals announced plans to spend $1 billion so cities and housing providers could buy properties being sold because of the COVID-19 pandemic and use them to keep people from becoming homeless. That money was expected to last for six months.

Gerrard suggested Indigenous leaders and groups could form partnerships, and be involved in staffing, consultation and design in purchasing and retrofitting hotels.

The move towards permanent housing for the homeless, according to Lamont, has been successful in other jurisdictions like Medicine Hat, Alta.

"It's safer, it's lower cost, more stable, and we do actually have the resources to do it," he said.

A spokesperson for Families Minister Rochelle Squires responded to the Liberal homeless report in a statement.

"Our government is committed to supporting Manitobans experiencing homelessness, to ensure that no one falls through the cracks as we face the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic together," reads the statement. "Our government will continue working with community partners to invest in solutions to support and protect Manitoba's most vulnerable people, including those experiencing homelessness.

The spokesperson noted a recent $468,000 provincial investment in COVID-19 isolation units at Main Street Project for people experiencing homelessness and $3.5 million in funding in 2020 to expand homeless shelter capacity, including new 110 beds at Main Street Project, 50 beds at Siloam Mission and 20 housing units for at-risk youth.