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“We see you. We hear you. We love you.”

February 14, 2024

3 MIN READ

Paula found a supportive place to shine at a donor-supported drop-in centre where everyone is welcome to come as you are.

The smell of sage fills the air from a recent smudge in the common room. A happy tabby cat walks across the welcome desk, as he has many times before, for a hello and a scratch. A couple of volunteers add scoops of sugar to reusable cups, so they’re ready to be topped up with hot coffee when visitors drop by for a chat.

Though it’s a cloudy day outside, there’s nothing but light inside the donor-supported drop-in centre, Sunshine House.

“Sunshine House actually taught me the skills I needed to go from depression and re-arrange those letters and be able to say, I pressed on,” says Paula, who has been coming to the space for nearly 20 years. “That’s just kind of the way it goes.”

Sunshine House has been a haven for Paula and countless others since it opened its doors as a community drop-in and resource centre focused on harm reduction and social inclusion.

Participants are free to come as they are and are not expected to be clean or sober.

“We see you, we hear you, we love you,” said project coordinator Helina Zegeye. “It’s a term of endearment, essentially. 

“However you’re coming to us—we’re going to respect you.”

"However you're coming to us—we're going to respect you.”

Temporarily operating out of a Notre Dame Avenue church while the original Logan Avenue location is re-fit with a main floor restroom and foot care treatment room, Sunshine House recorded more than 16,000 visits last year, including 800 visits to the organization’s donation closet.

Currently, staff hand out about 5,000 harm reduction supplies each month—like sterile syringes, condoms, and test strips that can detect the presence of deadly fentanyl and benzodiazepine.

At a time when many organizations are administering naloxone on a regular, sometimes daily, basis (on top of the 250-plus doses administered by the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service since Jan. 1), Zegeye said it’s a welcome relief to be able to open a dialogue with users about the ongoing toxicity in the city’s drug supply.

The drop-in is a great opportunity for us to have conversations about what is changing in the city’s drug supply,” she said.

“We’re having conversations about solvent use. We’re having conversations about the most recent drug alerts that are available for the city, and we’re making sure that people are informed on any other trends that are coming up.”

Sunshine House hands out about 5,000 harm reduction supplies every month.

Outside of the harm reduction resources Sunshine House offers guests, the centre also serves hot meals—to be eaten inside or taken to-go—and hosts a variety of programming, like bingo games, sweetgrass braiding, dreamcatcher making, and medicine picking with a guided teacher.

Mostly, what we try to focus on is bringing people in from outside and fostering a community, so people make friends here,” said outreach worker Caleb, adding once visitors form relationships, they can start together on a path to healing.

“We do our best to help people navigate whatever systems they need to navigate,” he said. “Whether that’s a detox, whether it’s replacement therapy, whether it’s like any of those types of systems … we try to get people in because we want people to get the help that they want.”

For Paula, help and healing often take place within the drop-in centre’s garden, where she grows and dries medicines like tobacco, sweetgrass, and sage.

“Just getting your hands in there, getting involved,” she said.

Preparing sage for a smudge.

“I think people hold Sunshine House in a very soft place in their heart—and I think that goes a long way in folks coming back to us.”

Zegeye said United Way Winnipeg’s support of Sunshine House has been instrumental to the organization’s continued ability to build trusted connections with Winnipeggers in a non-judgmental, safe space.

United Way Winnipeg allows us to do so many things that we wouldn’t be able to do without their partnership, their support, and their funding. The resources that are available through drop-in … is a direct result of our relationship with United Way,” she said.

“I think people hold Sunshine House in a very soft place in their heart—and I think that goes a long way in folks coming back to us.”

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