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No place like home

August 9, 2023

5 MIN READ

Cheryl found the keys to a better future with the help of a network of family resource centres

Four walls and a roof aren’t what make a home to Cheryl.*

For her, home is the laughter shared over a meal she lovingly cooked for her friends. It’s the comfort of a safe place to meet her most basic needs and dream for the future. It’s stability, dignity, and connection.

But when tragedy struck a few years ago, all of that disappeared. Flames engulfed Cheryl’s apartment building, forcing her into a life on the streets.

“I lost everything,” she said. “Now, whenever I hear a fire alarm, I panic every time.”

Traumatized and terrified, Cheryl spent the next two years living in a small tent beside a downtown Winnipeg overpass. Trying to get by without a permanent place to live—or a steady source of income—made survival feel nearly impossible.

With a strong work ethic and a go-getter attitude, Cheryl used to support herself by renovating houses and working on warehouse floors. But standing on her feet for eight hours a day worsened her osteoarthritis—to the point that she could no longer work.

“It was hard,” said Cheryl. “Not having food, wearing the same clothes, not being able to shower anywhere . . .”

At least 1,250+ Winnipeggers experience homelessness on any given day (though it's likely even more).

A glimpse of hope came when Cheryl’s daughter told her about a caring place called West Central Women’s Resource Centre,** a donor-supported agency addressing the unique needs of diverse women, trans, Two-Spirit, and gender non-conforming people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg.

Cheryl dropped by the family resource centre and filled out an application for help with housing. Soon after, a staff member invited Cheryl back for a conversation she’ll never forget.

“She told me, ‘You don’t have to live in a tent anymore,’” said Cheryl. “I was like, ‘Are you serious?’”

Then came even better news.

Her support worker at West Central Women’s Resource Centre gave her a couple of bus tickets and directions to another donor-supported agency: the Blake Gardens location of NorWest Co-op Community Health***—which had found Cheryl a long-term place to live.

Not even a half hour later, I had the keys to my home,” Cheryl remembered.

That was the day Cheryl’s life changed forever. A friend who knew about her chronic back pain helped her move, using his wheelchair to push a shopping cart of her belongings down the street to her new place.

“I cried,” she said. “Somebody answered my prayers.”

"They help you any way they can."

Nestled in neighbourhoods across our city, family resource centres are welcoming places that nurture the well-being of Winnipeggers. They operate as a network, collaborating across systems and deep within community to offer a circle of support to anyone who needs it.

For Cheryl, the coordinated effort of these “community living rooms” was the scaffolding that supported her as she began rebuilding her life.

“People there look out for each other,” she said. “All the staff are very friendly and know everyone by name. They help you any way they can.”

Now with a safe and stable place to live, Cheryl can focus on meeting other critical needs—many of which she can get help with at Blake Gardens.

A yellow sign for Blake Gardens' fruit & veggie market sits outside the agency.

From counselling and free tax clinics to help finding food and jobs, Blake Gardens offers an extensive range of wraparound services. But what Cheryl most looks forward to every time she visits is simply “the coffee and the ‘hi.’”

“The best part is the people. Every time I walk in, it’s ‘Hi, Cheryl!’ ‘Welcome back, Cheryl!’ ‘How you doing, Cheryl?’ It’s nice, you know?”

That sense of connection and belonging is like medicine to Cheryl, helping fill a void created by a cascade of devastating losses. A fiercely loving mother of nine children, she’s lost four of them to suicide.

Struggling with mental health herself, Cheryl says she draws strength from smudging and other aspects of her Métis culture. And joining her friends nearly every day at Blake Gardens helps her feel much less alone.

“I never used to leave my home. I guess because I was so proud to have one,” she said.

“Blake Gardens gets me out of the house. It gets me motivated to do something. It gets me out to meet people. I love them over there.”

"I love them over there."

Sharing meals is one of the aspects Cheryl cherishes most about Blake Gardens. Throughout the week, the agency brings neighbours together for nourishing breakfasts and lunches, meeting both social and physical needs.

It’s a huge boost for Cheryl, who feels the pinch of skyrocketing food costs with every visit to the grocery store.

“[Food] is extremely expensive now,” she declared. “It’s crazy.”

That’s why Cheryl tries to do most of her shopping at the agency’s low-cost fruit and veggie market. Every week, she can purchase healthy foods like fresh tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries, and eggs—all at an affordable price, leaving more money for other essentials like clothes.

“I usually save myself at least $20 every week at the market,” explained Cheryl, emphasizing how much those savings add up.

“And during the week, if you’re short of food, they give you a care hamper—things like ham, carrots, potatoes, pasta. I’ve used that hamper a few times.”

"Giving makes me feel a lot better."

The kindness of Blake Gardens and United Way Winnipeg donors resonates deeply with Cheryl, inspiring her to find ways to pay it forward.

A skilled cook with a big heart, Cheryl spent the holidays in her kitchen last year, preparing a feast for her neighbours. Every ingredient came from Blake Gardens—right down to the turkey she won playing bingo at the family resource centre.

“I fed the people in my building and took half of it to Blake Gardens. People were like, ‘You really made this all by yourself? The whole thing?’” she said with a laugh.

“I told them, ‘You guys give to me, I can give back to you.’ Giving makes me feel a lot better.”

Generosity is a core value Cheryl says was instilled in her during childhood, mainly by her mother. It’s also a cornerstone of her Métis culture, where sharing your gifts with others is considered a vital part of living.

So is the value of togetherness. And for Cheryl, knowing she can find that just a two-minute walk down the street to Blake Gardens means everything to her.

“Freedom,” she said with a sigh. “Coming here feels like freedom.”

*Name has been changed for privacy. 

**West Central Women’s Resource Centre empowers women and gender-diverse people to move from where they are to where they want to be, providing supports like healthy meals, housing assistance, childcare, employment and income support, and more.

***With the help of United Way Winnipeg donors, NorWest Co-op Community Health is Manitoba’s only healthcare co-operative, helping Winnipeggers improve their physical well-being and mental health at resource centres across the city

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