What does a shelter provide in rural and northern communities

Published on Tuesday, 30 January 2024 08:14

There is a strong divide in the Valley when it comes to the topic of a shelter in the community. There are some who that feel having a shelter in Swan River will only increase crime and encourage more people who are experiencing homelessness to come to the community. There are others who feel that there is a definite need to provide shelter to people who don’t have anywhere to sleep when the temperatures drop down to -30C below or colder.
In the neighbouring community of The Pas, Oscar’s Place is an emergency shelter that has been operating for quite some time. It’s had its challenges over the years with having enough funding to keep the doors open, but it’s also provided a safe place for those in need to keep out of the cold.
Town of The Pas Mayor Andre Murphy feels that having a shelter in the community is the social and morally right thing to do, but also wants more services in the community to help with the other issues that have led people to be homeless in the first place.
“It’s important to recognize that there are a group of individuals in our communities who are having issues with housing needs,” said Town of The Pas Mayor Andre Murphy. “It’s good to have a shelter because we don’t want people to freeze to death, but it has to be accompanied by complete wrap-around services to help with issues of addictions and mental health. Oscar’s Place is designated as an emergency shelter and is only supposed to be used by a person for a few days. Without the services to help people address what had led to the issue of homelessness, there is a possibility of people then treating the shelter as a residence, which then takes away from it becoming an emergency shelter.
“There are just not enough addiction supports for people in our community and there is no quick access to mental health supports either. There’s a definite gap to deal with here. I’ve spoken to people in the community who use the shelter and they’ve shared with me that they are struggling with addictions and want to get help, but there is over a three-week waiting period for them to get into addiction treatment. I’ve also heard others tell me they went for addiction treatment and came back here, which is their home community, and went back into the exact same environment they were in before, with no transitional housing or support to maintain sobriety. There were no supports to access housing, employment and sober living. So how does a community expect to break the cycle of homelessness, if we don’t have all the supports in place?”
Murphy doesn’t agree with the mentality of kicking people out of The Pas who are homeless. Many of the people experiencing homelessness are originally from the area, and Murphy also believes that people have the right to come and stay in a community if they choose to.
“We need to take care of people who are struggling and don’t want to see anyone freezing to death,” said Murphy.
“As human beings, we should have a heart and compassion to make sure no one freezes to death. As for those who say the homeless need to go back to where they came from, well those people who are homeless in our community are citizens of The Pas. They may have come from somewhere else, but if they choose to come to our community and want to stay here, then that’s where they live.
“As the Town of The Pas, or Opaskwayak Cree Nation or the R.M. of Kelsey, we can’t take care of the homelessness situation on our own; we need more support.”
The Pas also runs a soup kitchen through The Pas Friendship Centre. The Pas Friendship Centre is very familiar with the homeless population in the community and believes that Oscar’s Place is a definite need in the area.
“Oscar’s Place saves lives, plain and simple,” said The Pas Friendship Centre Executive Director Doug Bartlett. “The weather in northern Manitoba, being what it is, takes a toll on the homeless population. Oscar’s Place provides up to 26 people, with a warm place to spend the night.
“That being said, I believe the shelter could be twice as big and there would not be enough room for all the homeless population. Another concern was that Oscar’s Place was not open during the day, however, this has been rectified. The homeless population can now attend the shelter from 3:30 p.m., and this will be until the cold snap has ended.”
Bartlett doesn’t believe a shelter is a drawing card for more homeless people to come to a community. There is a lack of affordable housing all across Manitoba, and it gets particularly worse, more north of the province.
“I do not believe having a shelter in our community is the reason so many people are coming to The Pas and find themselves homeless,” said Bartlett. “What has been a major factor in the homeless issue in our and every other community in the north, is the lack of housing. Many people that come to our community are here because there are 12 to 18 people living in the same house in their home community.
“They come to the larger community of The Pas and soon find themselves on the streets. Then the addictions take over. The longer they are on the streets, the harder it is to intervene and provide services. Many of the homeless population have been walking the streets here for many years, and this is their community too.”
The Pas Friendship Centre realized that if people don’t have a place to keep warm in the community, then they also do not have food to sustain them. Recently, The Pas Friendship Centre expanded its soup kitchen from its building into a separate one on LaRose Avenue.
“The soup kitchen provides the homeless population a warm meal once a day,” said Bartlett. “For many of them, this is the only meal they will have that day. While they are at the soup kitchen, there is an opportunity to provide them with information and services.
“These can range from assistance with health information to having clothing provided. We have both a Health Navigator and a Homeless Navigator on staff to assist them. As well, we also have a Homeless Mentor who works directly with the community homeless. One of the impacts on the community is there are fewer people roaming the streets when the soup kitchen is open. We do however have rules such as, if you are intoxicated in any way, you will not be allowed in.”
Bartlett shares many of the same views as Murphy when it comes to the need for wrap-around services in the community to help reduce homelessness, addictions, poverty and crime.
“The staff at The Pas Friendship Centre have a very trying job,” said Bartlett. “ We cannot let our personal biases dictate our actions in how we work with the community homeless people. The staff have developed relationships with our homeless clients on a basic level that understand that they are where they are and can move forward from there.
“To address the homelessness in northern communities, it comes down to providing housing and addiction treatment services that are based in the north. Sending people south for treatment and then returning them to the same situation they left will not bring the client to a place where they are able to stay clean and sober.
“Addiction to substances has been classified as a medical disease by Health Canada,” said Bartlett. “Too often communities choose to ignore this and blame the addict with the age-old adage that if they had a moral compass, they wouldn’t do drugs. It’s this type of nonsense that has been detrimental to addictions for years.
“Even when an addict has gotten treatment, there are so few rental spaces in this community that individuals end up on the streets and after a few weeks, they fall back to old patterns and ways of living. As a community, we need to come to the realization that housing is a major factor in homelessness.”

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