Turning a blind eye to homelessness this winter is not possible as people line sidewalks and bus shelters, fighting to survive. 

Unexpected patterns in the unsheltered population are popping up ranging from people sleeping rough in bus shelters to empty beds in overnight shelters for the first time in years.

Drop-in lineups

Warming spots such as libraries and restaurants remain closed, resulting in those usual patrons needing to find shelter elsewhere. One of the places experiencing a massive uptick is 1JustCity whose visitor volume has doubled and its exterior walls now regularly shadowed by the silhouettes of people in need.

"People are telling us there is just nowhere else to go,"  Josh Ward, the manager of 1JustCity's West End resource centre says, noting that people are knocking on their doors just to have a place to use a washroom. "We just really want people to be treated with dignity." 

1justcity1JustCity's West Broadway centre's lineup. (1JustCity/Facebook)

While folks wait their turn, 1JustCity is keeping a fire going to provide some warmth. He says most people in the lineups are Indigenous, so the group decided to bring its Indigenous cultural teachings outside. Before the pandemic, they would have programs running inside.

Ward is amazed at how well the community is taking care of each other throughout the pandemic, despite having virtually nothing. Ward says they continue to "love the underloved" each day.

"COVID kind of sucked the soul out of our ability to do that for a while," he says. "The way that we sort of pushed back against that is we were able to get our drop-in reopened at our west end site."

Ward is not certain why they suddenly have gone from 75 daily visitors to 150. He says they have noticed as temperatures dip, their pantry empties quicker each day.

"Right now our greatest need is food. The community has responded really well to this expanded need but it is a significantly expended need."

He says they do not know why temperatures and food are correlated, but they are hoping to fill that need despite their panty emptying before the end of their daily lineup.

Isolation on the street

Union Gospel Mission at 320 Princess Street is seeing long lineups for their 10-person drop-in, with new faces anxious to get inside.

"People who are on the streets right now, they are feeling the distance from people," Mark Kelm, UGM's Senior Chaplain says. "Just like anybody else, they want closeness with others."

ugm menUGM's men's addictions facility experienced a COVID-19 outbreak but has since recovered. (Screenshot: UGM/YouTube)

With the new faces comes increased risk. UGM is seeing people who are facing their own battles of addiction and mental health struggles come in their doors but not all are friendly.

"We are receiving a number of people who are barred from elsewhere," Martin Chidwick, UGM's Development Manager says. "There is a lot of tension so we need a lot of prayer for the protection of people who work there and for these people for protection from themselves."

He says many who visit are facing mental health and addiction struggles. 

Kelm says even before the pandemic, people did not want anything to do with the homeless population. Now that COVID has hit, and hit the homeless community hard, the isolation is even worse.

The chaplain says something as simple as a smile could let others know they are being thought of. Kelm is calling for prayers as people face extreme isolation.

Kelm says people are asking for more prayers and chaplain time than ever before. 

"It is kind of heartbreaking at times," Kelm says, asking for "prayer for acceptance by others. Prayer for acceptance by God. That people would see them for who they really are, not just somebody who is homeless, somebody who is walking down the street in ragged clothes with a shopping cart. They want to be seen for who they really are."

In some cases, people are putting themselves in danger to stay warm. Violence and drug use in bus shelters, not being as COVID-careful, or finding ways to spend a short stint in jail are all risky ways people struggling to survive might be facing to have their basic needs met.

The risky behaviour may lead some to think overnight shelters are at capacity, but that is not the case.

Unused shelter capacity

"So far we have not reached our maximum capacity at the shelter," Luke Thiessen, Communications Manager at Siloam Mission says, speculating that this might be because of the new isolation shelters and other facilities opening up space. "We are here to serve those experiencing homelessness and we are not the only ones doing this."

siloam winterSiloam has been able to put in physical barriers and other protective measures to keep people safe while staying at their shelter.

Shelter capacity is changing as the pandemic persists. 

"This year is the first time that we are in this situation where we actually have additional space for people to come in," Thiessen says.

Despite added precautions and colder weather, beds remain unused. This is a stark contrast to 1JustCity who needed to rent more space for its drop-in. End Homelessness Winnipeg says they do not know why this is, but guess it is because of the closure of public spaces making drop-ins attractive, and isolation spaces serving those who otherwise would be in a shelter.

Thiessen says some people do not feel safe in a shelter environment or are choosing to brave the elements in places such as bus shelters for their independence.

"In those cases, we just hope that they are able to sleep safely and make it through the night."

Increased funding from the province

Acquiring basic needs such as food and shelter is a struggle for those facing homelessness unless they have been potentially exposed to COVID-19. A boost from the province is assuring those who need shelter and food while isolation with COVID-19 are being taken care of. 

Premier Brian Pallister says the province has taken "constant effort" to support those who are homeless.

"Our homeless population needs out support and help now," Pallister says. "We are second in the country as a province, a provincial government, in offering additional funding in support for programs largely directed to our most valuable population."

He says more information on the province's plan to immunize the homeless population will be announced soon.

"We are continuously working to assess the situation and to ensure that we are able to provide housing for all Manitobans." Family Minister Rochelle Squires said Tuesday in a press conference announcing an additional $468,000 towards the provincial response to homelessness and the pandemic. 

While the province's move to increase funding for the COVID-19 shelters is a solid temporary solution, End Homelessness Winnipeg says there need to be permanent solutions for people in need of housing.

lissie rappaportRappaport says this year has shown them how valuable teamwork is in protecting Manitoba's homeless population. (End Homelessness Winnipeg)

Ending homelessness community effort

Lissie Rappaport, manager of housing supply with End Homelessness Winnipeg, says the isolation shelters used by the homeless population are emergency responses to the pandemic, calling for investments in permanent housing solutions. 

"This year's winter plan definitely had to be adapted to COVID-19," she says, noting that the closure of public spaces creates challenges, but many places have stepped up to meet the need.

Rappaport says they have learned a lot throughout the pandemic. The biggest thing they have learned is that homelessness is a community-wide problem that needs a community-wide solution.

"COVID-19 has emphasized that housing is healthcare," she says. "People need long term and safe housing."

While not everyone can volunteer to work at a shelter, organizations across the city agree everyone can be part of the solution. Donating food and warm clothing, praying, and offering a friendly greeting are some suggestions from leaders.