Two huts for the homeless erected by local volunteers were torn down by the Winnipeg Police Service. Meanwhile a harsh winter has arrived. Find out more.
I may be naive, although people rarely accuse me of that. Even so, it seems to me that our culture’s approach to poverty has shifted throughout my lifetime. For the first two decades of my life, we had no food banks and the phrase “the homeless” was foreign to us.
For example, the Daily Bread Food Bank opened its doors in Toronto the same year I graduated from university. The concept of a food bank was unheard of at that time.
The people behind foodbanks told the public that they were temporary measures. They planned to be out of business just as soon as social programs were reformed. Thirty-five years later, the Daily Bread Food Bank is busier than ever, with franchises across the Greater Toronto Area.
URBAN HOMELESSNESS CRISIS STARTED IN THE 80S
The urban homelessness crisis also started in the 80s, and it resulted from a perfect storm of social factors. Society collectively turned up its nose at boarding and halfway houses (forgive me, single room occupancy).
The term NIMBY entered our vocabularies, describing many residential communities. (NIMBY stands for not in my backyard.) It was a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” People were all for shelter for the homeless, as long as it wasn’t next door to them.
Funding was cut for mental institutions, based on the excuse that patients would be better served by community health care centres. Those centres never materialized.
NO PLAN TO HOUSE EVICTED LOW-INCOME TENANTS
The handful of existing outpatient clinics were swamped. Their designers never intended them to cope with patients with severe mental illnesses. Meanwhile, low rent districts became gentrified with no plan to house the evicted low-income tenants.
Professor David Halchanski of the University of Toronto reviewed the New York Times historical database from 1851 to 2005. He found that 87% of the articles using the word “homelessness” appeared between the years 1985 and 2005. The notions of an issue called homelessness, and a class of people called “the homeless” are new trends in our language.
Let’s be clear about this. There have always been people without a home of their own. For one reason or another, some individuals have the misfortune to find themselves alone in the community without a family or comparable support network. That leaves them without the financial or moral support that makes a house a home.
SOMEONE WITH NO ROOF OVER HEAD WAS UNIMAGINABLE
That’s what people used to think of when they learned that someone had no home. The idea of someone living without a roof over their head was unimaginable. Rooming houses and missions weren’t luxurious. The worst of them weren’t even clean or safe by modern standards. Even so, people didn’t go unhoused.
Back in 1973, Canada’s Minister of Urban Affairs said, “When we talk about people’s basic needs — the requirements for survival — society and the government obviously have an obligation to assure that these basic needs of shelter are met.”
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
HOMELESS PEOPLE USE GREEN SPACE AS A TENT CITY
As readers will know, that has all changed today. We saw a living example of this just last week in Winnipeg. A sizeable vacant area sits next to the Disraeli Freeway. Homeless people use it as a tent city.
Local resident Michael Belhumeur felt sorry for the people living there and came up with an idea. Along with fellow members of a community group called the Urban Knights, he decided to provide some better shelter in the form of a couple of simple wooden huts for the homeless.
Belhumeur spoke to Ben Waldman of the Winnipeg Free Press. He said that, before his group went ahead with the idea, they contacted End Homelessness (the organization charged with reducing homelessness and the effects of poverty in the city). They also spoke to the Winnipeg Police Service, members of the city council, the mayor’s office, and other front-line social workers.
NO RULES AGAINST SETTING UP SHELTERS IN GREEN SPACE
Authorities told them that the huts for the homeless would be appreciated. The people Belumeur contacted led him to believe that there were no rules or regulations against setting up the Urban Knights’ shelters in that green space.
Having done their homework, the Urban Knights hooked up with the local high school. The woodshop class received instructions on building a pair of warming huts for the homeless.
They framed them with wooden studs and used chipboard for the siding. The huts for the homeless were rudimentary, with no insulation or heating. Still, they would undoubtedly be better than nothing for someone needing shelter from Winnipeg’s infamous winter winds.
POLICE DISMANTLED AND REMOVED BOTH HUTS
They erected their huts on the vacant property on Friday, November 29. Over that weekend, police dismantled and removed both of them. They didn’t give the Urban Knights any notice or warning of their plans. The volunteers and students were devastated.
Ben Waldman spoke to police Sgt. Brian Chrupalo about the incident. Chrupalo said, “We can’t have these two permanent shelters getting dropped off just because someone thinks it’s a good idea. I get it, and I appreciate their intent, but there’s just a process for all of this to go through.”
The issue here doesn’t seem to be about safety or community standards or any other reasonable consideration. This appears to be a case of the typical bureaucratic obsession with “process.”
PROCESS IS ALL THAT SEEMS TO COUNT HERE
The practical consequences of the work the Urban Knights and the students performed mean nothing. Results don’t matter. The process is all that seems to count here.
Interestingly, the police didn’t touch the tents and other makeshift shelters in the same space. Only the two so-called “permanent shelters” came down. We wonder what process guided the pitching of these flimsy, weather-beaten coverings strewn randomly about the property.
A distraught Belhumeur summed things up for Waldman by saying, “The huts were meant as a social justice statement, and we wanted them to reflect the compassion of the community. It was meant to be a good thing.”
SYSTEMIC FAILURE BY ALL LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT
Of course, the root cause of the problem here has nothing to do with the police, the Urban Knights, the students or End Homelessness. This issue arose because of a systemic failure by all levels of government to deliver the fundamental human right of basic shelter to everyone. The late Jack Layton, former leader of Canada’s NDP, wrote about these issues and how to solve them in his book Homelessness: How To End The National Crisis
Lucille Bruce is the CEO of End Homelessness. When asked about the incident, she indicated that her organization was researching the use of “tiny” or “modular” structures as humane shelter. She also said that she would be willing to meet with the Urban Knights in the future to share ideas.
Meanwhile, as I write this, the current temperature in Winnipeg is -10˚ C with a wind chill of -13˚C. We hope these ideas can be shared very soon.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Winnipeg Free Press
The Invention of Homelessness
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Homelessness: How To End The National Crisis
Human Rights Call to Action From UN Chief
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