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‘More encampments than there have ever been,’ Winnipeg homeless outreach worker says | CBC News

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The head of an organization that does outreach work to homeless people east of the Red River says they’ve never seen as many encampments as they have this year.

“I can’t actually give you a number … but I can tell you that this year, on our side of the river, in eastern Winnipeg, there are more encampments than there have ever been,” said Marion Willis, executive director of St. Boniface Street Links. 

The group’s outreach teams have counted more than 40 camps this year, some of which have been dismantled. The organization houses an average of 30 people per month, but Willis says the problem shows no signs of improvement. 

While their teams work to build relationships with people living in encampments, connect them with housing and addiction services, and provide ongoing support, Willis said the scale of the issue and the deeply rooted problems facing individuals goes beyond what her organization and others in the city can address.

“There’s going to be people that we might house eight different times, but you continuously work to house people,” she said.

On the other side of the river in Point Douglas, Jordan Van Sewell said concerns with people living in a camp along the riverbank is driving some longtime residents out of the neighbourhood.

Van Sewell has lived in his Curtis Street home for 34 years, and in that time he says the neighbourhood changed from a replica of a “sleepy town in Saskatchewan … to this crazy urban disease that’s going on.”

CBC News counted about a dozen tents in the encampment. People in the camp declined requests to be interviewed.

Recently, Van Sewell got a call from his son, telling him a woman was in his yard vandalizing the art he had hung up. In another instance, he saw a coroner’s van arrive to take away someone who had died in the camp. 

While one of his neighbours recently sold his house, others seem to have accepted the situation, he said.

“I guess the level of acceptance maybe doesn’t sit as well with me because I’ve got my heels dug in here and I’ve carved out a nice little house that I, you know, really enjoy.”

Van Sewell wants the city and province to work together to build more housing and give people in encampments more options for places to live. 

“Every initiative that I hear about is so long-term that it’s a generation before anything is truly addressed,” he said. “There’s lives that are being squandered because of these addiction issues, because of homelessness.”

Blackened wreckage of a temporary encampment is pictured on a walking path near a river.
Burnt remains of a temporary encampment along the Assiniboine River in June. A solution to Winnipeg’s homelessness problem must also address the related issue of addiction, one advocate says. (Josh Crabb/CBC)

Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham has said addressing homelessness is a top priority, and recently toured Point Douglas along with community members and area Coun. Vivian Santos.

Van Sewell met Gillingham during that tour.

“I saw a guy that was sincerely passionate about seeing the deterioration of his city. He had his entourage with him … and the councillor of the area and, you know, they’re people that sincerely want to see it get better, but it doesn’t doesn’t seem to be happening.”

CBC News has asked the mayor’s office for comment.

This year’s city budget included $1 million for constructing more 24/7 safe spaces.

In May, the province announced it would convert six houses seized under criminal forefeiture legislation into affordable housing. One of those houses burned down two weeks later.

Willis with St. Boniface Street Links says the solution to homelessness must also address the related issue of addiction. An auditor general report released on Wednesday found the province lacks the capacity for addiction treatment.

The province must also change the approach it takes to addictions treatment, she said. Many programs end before people have a chance to recover, and kick them out if they relapse.

While he has no plans to leave his neighbourhood, Van Sewell wants to see immediate action to address the problems.

“The disruption in lives and society is huge and I don’t see it getting better,” he said.

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