Spread across the floor of a stifling room, 70 or so people sprawl sleeping, snoring, lying quietly, on two-inch-deep mats laid side by side, end to end. You want to tread very carefully to avoid stepping on a fellow sleeper if you need to get up for the bathroom in the dead of night.
This is the scene that greeted 20 or so CEO Sleepout participants when they toured the Main Street Project the last week in September.
The spectacle of those folks is seared into my brain. I see them lying there, head to tail, in their day clothes, no blankets, sleeping soundly because at least they are safe for this night. Yet when morning comes they will still have to face the prospect of having nowhere to go: just another day of endlessly trolling the streets, and if they’re lucky, maybe finding a grassy place in the sunshine near the river or in some park. Imagine if it were winter and minus 30. You have to keep moving, I was told, or you’ll freeze to death.
Nobody should have to live like this.
Over the coming months, I will be writing about this issue. My goal is to make you look – to make you see what is hidden from most of us, but which festers away in the soul of our city: an ugly, shameful wound that we can no longer turn away from.
The Main Street Project is not the only host to these people, although they take everyone, intoxicated or on drugs. The Salvation Army, 80 beds, and Siloam Mission, 110 beds, also have emergency shelters for the homeless but there are limits on who they will accept. The Salvation Army, for example, requires a breathalyzer test to get in.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” said Lisa Goss, the Main Street Project executive director for the past two years. “We have 75 beds, and when those are full, we often have as many as 30 more people waiting to get inside. I try to fit them all somewhere.”
The folks she looks after are the least fortunate of the unfortunate. They are at the bottom of the barrel, with nowhere else to go and no way to cope. A mat on the floor is just about as low as you can go without staying outside in the cold. This is unacceptable as a minimum standard in a wealthy country such as ours.
“How can we let this happen?” I asked in real outrage at the end of the tour. I was shaken by what I’d seen and emotionally bruised.
“I don’t know,” Lisa answered. “The Main Street Project has been trying to deal with this for 43 years. And nothing has changed. We fight for funding every day.”
She added, “Do you think it’s because nobody cares?”
“Surely, they do care. It must be because they don’t know,” I answered. But upon reflection, I am not sure I am right. It is easier to not see these people, to pretend that everything is all right and the problem will solve itself.
And then a Pharon Hall, a homeless man who twice risked his own life to save another, comes along. Or a 10 p.m. tour of a facility by a bunch of us do-gooders out for a night of feeling good about ourselves. I don’t feel so good about myself anymore; what I have seen can never be erased until homelessness is ended in Winnipeg.
I say again, there is no excuse for people to be homeless in this most blessed of lands. When almost half a billion dollars can be spent to refurbish a police station, nobody will ever convince me that we don’t have, can’t find, the money to end homelessness.
Just the other day, the city of Medicine Hat announced that it has become the first community in Canada to end homelessness, and if they can do it, then surely we can, too. And it makes good financial sense for all the bean counters out there: Medicine Hat says it costs $20,000 a year to house someone, when leaving them on the street can cost up to $100,000 a year. Emergency room visits drop, police calls subside, agency administration costs dissipate.
The agencies, the Main Street Project, the Salvation Army, the Siloam Mission and many others, are doing their best, but this is really not their problem – it is ours and it should be dealt with through the tax system and by governments. A minimum standard of shelter must be delivered and that minimum is vastly higher than a mat on a floor for a night.
Eliminating homelessness takes political will, and the impetus to make this happen needs to come from us, the citizens – we need to fire up our politicians at all levels to make sure this disgraceful condition is resolved.
The Bell Hotel project could be our initial benchmark – and believe me, that is a pretty low benchmark (the rooms are Spartan and tiny); but it is a start, and at least the rooms have a door with a lock and a bathroom to bathe in and do your private business.
I am told that while we don’t have an exact count, and anyway it varies, the number of people living on the streets is in the hundreds – maybe around 300 – certainly not an overwhelming number. Creating 300 minimum-standard living units would cost much less than refurbishing the police station or even the new Liquor Control-Lotteries Commission building. It’s all about priorities and this must be priority Number One.