“How do you go back to school or reunite with your kids or get a job or go into addictions counselling or maintain mental health appointments or be able to recover from injury or chronic illness … when you don’t have a place to live?”
It’s a simple question, with an equally simple answer: you can’t. Life is exponentially harder when you don’t have somewhere to live. Survival is a struggle every day and meeting the most basic of needs takes priority over just about everything else.
How can we help unsheltered Winnipeggers move from poverty to possibility? Can we end homelessness for those who experience it? The answer to these questions is also simple: YES.
End Homelessness Winnipeg, a United Way Winnipeg organization funded by donors, believes we can. What will it take? The support of a coordinated effort—with resources, infrastructure, and patience—and an unwavering belief that everyone in our city deserves to find their way home.
“Having a place to live is the first step in being able to stabilize other life situations,” said Kristiana Clemens, End Homelessness Winnipeg’s former Manager of Communications and Community Relations.
“As a caring community, we really should be not turning a blind eye and not trying to just push the problem aside, but really coming together in a circle of care to support those affected so they can heal from the harms that life has brought their way.”
End Homelessness Winnipeg was formed in 2015, following the design of a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. United Way Winnipeg led the planning process and relied on input from various stakeholders (government, non-profit, and private sectors).
The goal of the plan is to shift from managing homelessness to providing long term solutions such as homelessness prevention, housing supply, monitoring and evaluation, and provision of person-centred care. The primary role is to provide leadership and coordination in implementing the plan.
Collaboration across systems and deep within community and government sectors is central to End Homelessness Winnipeg’s work, as the knowledge and efforts of those with lived experience of homelessness, Indigenous leaders, community organizations, and the philanthropic and private sectors.
End Homelessness Winnipeg collaborates with service providers and stakeholders to align priorities and investment strategies in support of the long-term plan.
“They have to rely on each other to make sure they can help in the best way possible.”
In the last few years, the landscape of homelessness in Winnipeg has changed significantly. In 2018, Clemens said the city was concerned mainly about unsafe panhandling. Then, in early 2020, the pandemic hit. Strict COVID-19-related distancing and visitor restrictions meant people who’d been couch surfing at friends’ places or finding temporary rooms to stay couldn’t do that anymore. Outdoor sites like encampments and bus shelters became more commonplace, and homelessness came out of the shadows and into the light.
“People were shocked by the visibility of homelessness,” Clemens said. “It wasn’t likely a dramatic increase in the number of people without housing—but (the pandemic) was making hidden homelessness far, far more visible.”
With the challenges of homelessness in Winnipeggers’ view, changing the narrative around homelessness has become another huge piece of the complex puzzle.
“The idea that everybody experiencing homelessness is on drugs and struggling with their mental health is really rooted in stigma,” she said. “It gets all lumped together and then these people are treated as less than human.
“(But) these are our relatives. These are parents and children of people who love them, these are people who have gone through incredible levels of trauma and violence, loss, and grief.
“Offering someone a stable place to be real can be the first footstep on that journey of healing.”
End Homelessness Winnipeg, along with many of its counterparts around the world, are committed to a Housing First approach for moving people from poverty to possibility. The concept is defined as ‘providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life.’
Clemens says it’s “absolutely the first thing” to do to help Winnipeggers experiencing homelessness transform their lives.
“There’s just so much evidence that housing first works,” she said. “Once a person is experiencing homelessness, they are at much, much higher risk of deteriorating mental health.”
With the first step finding people a stable place to be, Clemens says the next step is to make sure they know they’re supported beyond just “having four walls and a door.”
“It’s about knowing someone’s got your back—knowing you have privacy and dignity and connection. It’s not just enough to hand over the keys,” she said. “Everyone’s needs are different … They still need that wraparound circle of care and support to help them up on the way.”
Despite the complexities of the issue, Clemens says “there is a lot of hope” when it comes to forward movement to end homelessness in Winnipeg.
Before the pandemic, Clemens said there weren’t 24/7 outreach teams. Now, there are three teams who work together through a shared communications app.
“They can respond to calls for wellness checks more rapidly,” she said. “The outreach workers can go and start to figure out what’s going on: where do you want to be and what barriers are you facing?”
As well, Astum Api Niikinaahk—an Indigenous-led collaborative with Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, End Homelessness Winnipeg and other supportive partners, including the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre, Eagle Urban Transition Centre, and Thunderbird House—will have 22 transitional units offering culturally relevant supports when it opens, and Winnipeg’s Pollard family has donated nearly $4 million toward building 47 micro-suite apartments—including 15 accessible for people with disabilities.
While these steps are in the right direction to meet urgent and critical needs, Clemens reminds us it still takes time—and we still need to scale up as a community to make sure no Winnipegger is left behind.
Our city’s biggest hurdle to making Housing First a reality is having an adequate housing supply. Currently, 20% of Winnipeg families compete for just 3% of affordable housing stock.
“That leaves 17% of people who are precarious, packed in, or without a home at all,” Clemens explained. “We need 300 new units of low-income housing per year for the next 10 years. We’re really pushing all levels of government to make new, low-income housing that addresses this need.”
Adding to the number already unsheltered in our city is the threat that more people could end up on the streets—mounting pressures on finances, mental health, and job stress means a rising number of Winnipeggers are at risk of losing their homes right now.
Bowles said precariously housed people can be found in every neighbourhood of our city, citing that *one in four people may not be able to afford their mortgage any longer if interest rates climb any higher.
“I can only imagine what people who are already strapped are feeling,” she said. “There are a lot of pressures, leading to the possibility that the homelessness numbers will increase.”
For people with lower incomes, Clemens said “skyrocketing inflation” is increasing competition for affordable rentals.
“If you have an income above median, housing seems affordable and there’s a wider range of options,” she said. “But for those that are on the lowest incomes, it’s tough—it’s really, really tough—and that creates a big risk to contribute to homelessness.”
Clemens says even though it’s a hard climb, the impact on Winnipeg families drives the commitment to the work—End Homelessness Winnipeg will not give up on those affected by the experience of homelessness.
United Way Winnipeg Community Investment Manager Michelle Chudd agrees, saying the
incredible generosity of donors makes sure End Homelessness Winnipeg can fulfill that promise and continue to change people’s lives in our community.
“We invest in agencies that serve homelessness. Our donors’ financial contributions will assist us in assisting those agencies carry out their vision,” she said. “Seeing the agencies that are serving homelessness or precariously housed, when you see how they’re working together, all the work they do together—it makes me hopeful the future will be better.”
For End Homelessness Winnipeg, that vision is a community where everybody has a home, and everybody has the supports they need to belong—a goal where everyone is treated as a human being with their basic human rights held up by the community.
“And we can do it,” said Clemens. “Other cities have done it. It’s possible for Winnipeg to realize this vision.”
*Survey conducted by Manulife Bank of Canada, June 2022.
Homelessness is a temporary situation, marked by a high level of mobility between different living situations and environments, for most people who experience it. People who have lost their housing are not a static group that can be found in a single location, neighbourhood, or age bracket.**
**End Homelessness Winnipeg
Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues. Additionally, Housing First is based on the understanding that client choice is valuable in housing selection and supportive service participation, and that exercising that choice is likely to make a client more successful in remaining housed and improving their life.***