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As Winnipeg homeless camps spread, Main Street Project provides outreach

Global News' Erik Pindera speaks to Main Street Project's Rick Lees about Winnipeg's homeless camps.

The number of homeless camps dotting Winnipeg’s riverbanks have increased over the past handful of years and exploded this summer.

That’s according to Gordon Cartwright, who’s been operating Splash Dash River Tours and Water Bus Service for 27 years.

“There’s always been some camps, every year I’ve ever operated, but the last couple years they’ve grown quite a bit,” Cartwright says while piloting his boat down the Assiniboine River, pointing out long-time and new encampments.

“In the past year, they’ve increased by at least 10 times as many as the year before.”

Earlier this year, a city request-for-proposal aimed at finding contractors to tear down homeless camps caused backlash and protests. The proposal was called dehumanizing.

READ MORE: City looking for help cleaning up needles, dismantling homeless camps

Soon, Main Street Project stepped in to take responsibility — but instead of tearing homeless camps down, making the people move on, as was done in the past — the non-profit social service agency provides outreach, health services, and harm reduction to the people living in the camps.

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That includes offering housing options, but no one is forced to move.

Some homeless camps have grown substantially, with camps under the Osborne and Maryland Bridges expanding throughout the summer.

The RFP and the backlash caused an important discussion, according to Main Street Project’s executive director Rick Lees.

“Now, 311 calls that were going to police that were dealing with social issues are referred through Main Street Project and… to our partners if we feel there’s a partner that’s more appropriate,” says Lees.

WATCH (May 22, 2019): There’s not enough housing’: Why people live on the streets in Winnipeg

There’s not enough housing’: Why people live on the streets in Winnipeg
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If homeless camps pose a risk to public safety, a city spokesperson said in an email statement, police will go to the area and address the concerns.

Lees says people living in camps want their independence, and for the most part, just want to be left alone.

Some may avoid shelters — most of which are in the downtown core — because they don’t feel safe or because the shelters are cramped.

“We cram 100 people into 2,100 square feet every night,” Lees says. “When our Mitchell (Fabrics) project is done, they’ll have 36,000 square feet.”

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Lees points to the Mitchell Fabric’s project and improving facilities in general as a way of helping people choose to get off the street.

READ MORE: ‘Meth camps’ showing up in city parks, says Winnipeg homeless advocate

As for public safety concerns, Lees notes there are bad people in any group.

“Are there some bad things that go on in there? For sure,” Lees says. “Our job we’ve been doing over the summer is trying to distinguish between the two — trying to provide health supports to those that need it, and advise our partners, the police and so on, when we think there’s things that need more of an enforcement piece.”

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