A shattering reality – just off Portage Avenue

We must face this social challenge  – posed by people who are homeless, who have addictions or mental health needs, who can’t control the urge to spend their money. We must provide the care they need, for their sake and our own.

Stefano Grande Downtown
Stefano Grande

As I walked down Portage Avenue, I noticed how vibrant downtown looked – flowers in full bloom, fresh streetscapes forming around the emerging entertainment district, new green spaces and courtyards encouraging people to hang out. There is a strong feeling of momentum and development downtown with construction everywhere.

There can be no doubt that downtown is alive. From a newly added farmers’ market at Manitoba Hydro to the many festivals like Manito Ahbee that promote culture, art and history, it’s very clear that downtown is undergoing a renaissance, with billions of dollars in investments channeled toward making it a positive place for everyone to enjoy.

Eliminate the problem
But as I turned the corner off of Portage Avenue, I observed a reality I see too often: many intoxicated people and many who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. While our cadets, the Winnipeg Police Service, and the Downtown BIZ watch were on the scene, working together to keep things cool, it was clear to me that we need to move from simply managing the situation to eliminating the problem.

Our members and the public believe that while downtown is safe, perceptions are often very different. A homeless person with mental health issues asking for change or a person who is intoxicated makes many people feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Social disorder at times is real.

No more crises!

Photo Credit: Winnipeg Sun
Photo Credit: Winnipeg Sun

On the final day of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference, police leaders engaged in a candid discussion focused on law enforcement’s ability to police the mentally ill. Chief Constable Jim Chu, president of the CACP, called on governments to step up and provide adequate care and facilities for the mentally ill, and he stated: “We need to shift from a point of crisis to preventing the crisis from occurring in the first place.”

With much coverage of homelessness in the media lately, it’s time to build on our conversation and to start talking about long-term solutions. It starts with acknowledging that this social challenge affects everyone, as well as the quality of public services and the quality of life of our neighbourhoods. People who are less fortunate; who might have addictions and/or mental health challenges, who are not able to control the urge to spend their money; and who might need a home – these people need help and support. And in helping these people, we will improve the image and safety of our downtown.

Alberta, Vancouver, and Saskatchewan are well on their way to tackling this challenge by creating a 10-Year Strategy to end homelessness. In Winnipeg, the United Way’s Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council has begun the process of creating Winnipeg’s long term strategy.

So what has to happen in Winnipeg? The city needs to lend its voice to this important issue and start challenging our community to think beyond our own back yards and to start publicly engaging in the conversation. The task of solving homelessness in Winnipeg needs a political champion.

Government financing needed
Once planning for this task is completed, it will be time for our provincial and federal governments to provide resources supporting long term action. We have seen how this city’s Housing First model has improved many lives, giving people a home and the support they need to lead healthier lives in safer communities. More social investment is now required.

The private sector has a stake and a responsibility too. Its members have a vested interest in building a strong, vital, safe and inclusive downtown and they should and can push the issue forward. In doing so, they are capable of influencing politicians to pick up a shovel and lead in this crucial effort, which is certain to help present Winnipeg in a better light.

Will the economic, social and other pieces line up for our city, as is starting to happen in other Canadian jurisdictions engaged in a similar effort? Or will we continue to talk about the dire consequences of poverty and homelessness in the hope that it will somehow magically fix itself?

Stefano Grande is executive director of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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