Winnipeg’s prominent display of people living rough in bus shelters or on the banks of rivers has caused many passersby to comment: “This is shameful. Someone should do something.”
Someone is trying to do something, and they need help.
A unique complex of 22 tiny housing units designed to offer affordable housing for people challenged by addictions and homelessness is about three-quarters complete. The homes will be situated in a circle at 171 Henry Ave., behind the Thunderbird House on Main Street.
MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Construction underway on housing units for people experiencing homelessness
Each of the units, about 250 square feet in size, has a bed, bathroom, kitchenette and a lock on the door to ensure privacy. They are situated in a circle, with an open area in the middle to allow socialization and a sacred fire. Monthly rent will be kept to about $500 a month, within the range of government-assistance cheques.
Commendably, the innovative concept for the community was created by people who understand homelessness, some of them first-hand. The community aims to respect the needs of people who might otherwise live on the streets. Holistic and cultural supports, designed to help residents feel safe and heal, will include staff to aid people who are suffering from addictions and mental illness.
The concept is to have Indigenous-run organizations use traditional methods to help Indigenous people recover. Involved groups include the Indigenous-led End Homelessness Winnipeg, the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre, Eagle Urban Transition Centre and Thunderbird House.
The hope was to open the units to residents this summer, a key component of something called the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Winnipeg; however, the cost of completing the housing complex has risen over the $5.9 million already secured in funding. The final stages of construction are now expected to cost about $1.5 million more than the previous budget, owing to inflation-fuelled hikes for labour and difficulties acquiring materials through pandemic supply-chain disruptions.
After it opens, the project is expected to require operational expenses of $1.3 million per year for 24/7 staff including a “cultural knowledge keeper” and maintenance.
Part of the reason why the community’s further financial needs should be addressed by federal, provincial and municipal governments is that it’s presenting a unique solution to homelessness in Winnipeg. Residents won’t have to get sober before they’re allowed entry. This housing-first philosophy — a core belief is that providing people a safe and stable residence will better enable them to recover from addictions — is aimed specifically at people who choose the indignities of squatting in bus shelters or in riverbank lean-tos rather than mainstream shelters that don’t admit people who are drunk or high.
A deeper reason for governments to cover the increased costs of the project is reconciliation. Apologizing for the colonial crimes inflicted on generations of Indigenous people must mean more than lip service.
It’s estimated that two-thirds of Winnipeg’s population of people who are experiencing homelessness are Indigenous and, in many cases, the challenging circumstances of their lives, the reasons why someone would overnight in bus shelters at -20 C, can be legacies of family dysfunction caused by misguided government intervention such as residential schools.
The community of tiny houses under development is designed to welcome people who are unwelcome in most other Winnipeg places. This attitude of unconditional acceptance is reflected in its name, Astum Api Niikinaahk, which translates to “come sit at our home.”
It’s right in every way. This exciting initiative, including the building cost overruns, should be seen as a worthwhile investment by governments.