Putting away his camera and pulling out lunch bags, a Winnipeg photographer cannot draw his eyes, or his heart, away from make-shift shelters and crowded bus shelters.
While photographing fat bikes downtown, Ross Penner noticed something many Winnipeggers have been seeing: shelters and alleys packed with people sleeping on the streets.
"You can't just do nothing. I don't know what it is about this year but there seems to be way more homeless down there than there has ever been before. So basically then it's "what is there to do? What can you do?"
He says he struggles to see people living on the streets, grappling between trying to find out what needs there are and how to help people with those needs.
Starting in December Penner is making it a habit to make extra lunches on the weekends to give to people he encounters while photographing the downtown area. He estimates he's given out close to 500 meals.
"You get such mixed emotions. You see it and think 'well how can they live like this.' You are in shock," he says. "Sometimes you get to know them and all of a sudden things happen."
Penner says that it can be dangerous and lets people approach him for food instead of him asking them. Because of the quick nature of the interactions, Penner has not had many conversations with people he's given food to with one exception, a man he bonded over bikes with.
"Along the river paths where I usually ride, this one guy, I usually talk to him and was getting ready to say 'hey we should go for a coffee' then all of sudden the next day his whole place burnt down."
Penner says he does not know if this man is still alive.
Over the past week, there have been three serious incidents involving the homeless population, including a man dying after an aerosol explosion at his camp, and two people being attacked in a bus shelter. Despite the concerns over sleeping rough, many still are.
The City of Winnipeg says some of its employees are tasked with outreach on the street.
"In terms of bus shelter safety, I can tell you Transit Inspectors who come across people inhabiting bus shelters assess the situation, provide information about emergency shelters that are open, and engage emergency responders if necessary to ensure safety," a spokesperson for the city says.
While there are beds available at shelters, some people choose to sleep rough due to barriers at shelters, such as not allowing pets or being a dry shelter.
"Emergency shelters cannot serve everyone’s needs. For this reason, people may feel “forced to choose between ‘sleeping rough’ on their own (putting themselves at risk of violence and criminalization)… or residing in a homeless encampment (in which they may lack access to basic services and face threats to their health),” End Homelessness Winnipeg says.
The group says people have concerns about going to shelters related to previous negative experiences including violence, perceived health or safety risks, stigma, and other concerns.
"In these times, housing is health care, and the only solution to address unsheltered homelessness in Winnipeg."