“It is life-saving for a lot of people.”

November 20, 2023


Donor-supported agencies join forces with other service organizations to offer a slate of support for our city’s most vulnerable


It’s a Tuesday morning in mid-October in downtown Winnipeg, and things are getting pretty busy at the fourth annual Gizhe Waa Tii-Si-Win Expo. People are getting their vision checked and their feet examined. They’re applying for health cards, tax assistance, and social insurance numbers, getting bus tickets, picking up pet food, or chatting with a neighbour over a cup of coffee.

They are also making connections—like John did—and taking the first step to changing the course of their life’s journey.

“It was the beginning…,” said John. “They helped me find a place; I got involved in all kinds of programs. 

And here I am today, clean and sober.”

At 73 years old, John’s journey has taken him on a long and winding path that was often tremendously difficult for him. 

He’s been addicted and homeless—and hopeless at times, too.

John was born in Edmonton and raised in foster care after his mother, who struggled with alcohol, wasn’t able to keep him at home. He grew up in 21 different places, and the complicated trauma of his childhood resonated for decades afterward. 

“I was just totally withdrawn—from not just people. I became a very dysfunctional human being, trying to make my way,” John said. “That’s the whole thing: if you don’t have a lot of people (around you), you’re getting all kinds of defences up, so it makes it hard to act.”

It continued that way for John until nine years ago when he realized he was ready to ask for help.

“That was the hardest thing for me to do…breaking all of those habits, like not trusting. What I needed to do was take the time and get involved with other people—what I needed to do was ask for help,” he said.

“And that’s where I found a few people, in here, that were willing … and that’s exactly what they did.”

With that helping hand, John saw a different path in front of him for the first time—one of clarity and sobriety. He connected with food banks in the area and attended a leisure program at the YMCA-YWCA of Winnipeg. Soon, he found a place to live—and even joined the tenant association.

Today, he shares his story with people at the Gizhe Waa Tii-Si-Win Expo to inspire others to believe that a better life is possible for everyone—just like it was for him.

“The unravelling of my life…it took success, failure, success, failure. And but for the grace of God, I’m still alright,” John said, adding he’s grateful for reaching out and finding help, getting sober, and attempting a new path. “It’s the biggest journey you will ever take in your life … and the hardest. But you should.

“(It feels like) freedom,” he said. “I have a voice now.”

“I think this is a beautiful example of sector collaboration and our desire to have a Winnipeg without chronic homelessness.”

Hailed as a groundbreaking, community-based initiative, the Gizhe Waa Tii-Si-Win Expoheld in mid-October at Siloam Mission—combines government services, basic needs support, and primary health and mental health care for Winnipeggers experiencing or at risk of homelessness, all in a one-stop pop-up shop style.

More than 40 providers— including several of United Way Winnipeg’s donor-supported agency partners—filled the common area, hallways, and private rooms throughout the Princess Street shelter for a full day. Partners like the Downtown Community Safety Partnership offered safety information, while Community Financial Counselling Services and SEED Winnipeg helped people with tax information and filings.

Zariah Paragadhi, a financial counsellor at CFCS, said giving clients living in poverty space to speak openly about money is the first step to helping them feel more in control of their finances and their lives.

“If your brain is constantly in fight or flight, it’s like living with the effects of a concussion. It impacts your brain so much,” Paragadhi said. “A lot of times, people are just grateful for someone to listen and understand their situation. Once they talk about their situation and know help is there and that they have options, they feel better.”

At the booth for another donor-supported agency partner, the Community Unemployed Help Centre, student volunteer Ian highlighted how much of a relief it is for his clients to simply know someone is there to help.

“They’re just happy to have someone in their corner, taking your concern seriously and advocating for you,” he said.

“They’re relieved knowing they’re not alone.”

Martinez loves to hear positive responses from her participants as they flourish with their new language and strengthen their roots in their new home city at the same time.

“The programs give them a sense of community and provide them with useful information and resources.”

“For people to know exactly what the resources are 
to get the help they need is really, really important.”

Back at the Expo, John continued to share his story with neighbours and new friends who came to sit with him throughout the day.

And with such a variety of helpful booths and staff on hand, he even solved a problem he’d been dealing with at home. He had been struggling to connect with someone on the phone about the Rent Assist program, a provincial monthly benefit to help those on a low income paying rent in the private market.

Here, John was able to meet with a Rent Assist representative in person and have his questions answered and forms all filled out right on the spot.

“It is life-saving for a lot of people,” he said.

“For people to know exactly what the resources are to get the help they need is really, really important.”


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