The pandemic, coupled with a long, cold and snowy winter, has been a trying time for many, but especially for those who are experiencing homelessness.
“For a while, the challenges around social distancing and some of those health measures made it hard to tell exactly where things were going,” Thiessen told Global News.
“As we’re lifting (restrictions), we’re seeing very tangibly the difficulties in more people needing services, mental health challenges that have come out of this, and overall health challenges. There’s just lots of ways we’re seeing that come together.”
Siloam Mission expanded its bed capacity just a few months into the pandemic, and Thiessen says this winter brought about the most demand they’ve seen yet.
“For awhile we had extra space, and this winter is when that headroom – we lost that completely,” he said.
“We filled right up this winter in a way that we didn’t last winter. So we know that there’s something about this winter and the pandemic together have made the demands go up and made it extra hard on those experiencing homelessness.”
End Homelessness Winnipeg says the pandemic made the plight of vulnerable people more visible in Winnipeg, as COVID-19 restrictions and physical distancing requirements in shelters meant many had fewer places to go, and ended up turning to bus shelters and encampments.
“The state of homelessness in Winnipeg two years into the pandemic is pretty challenging,” End Homelessness Winnipeg communications and community relations manager Kris Clemens said.
“The early stages of the pandemic and the successive lockdowns really increased the visibility of unsheltered homelessness in bus shelters and encampments. But also, income precarity and inflation have put a lot more people at risk of losing their housing, and at the end of the day, we’ve become increasingly aware of Winnipeg’s housing supply crisis.”
Clemens said at the start of the pandemic, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service received an increase of calls to bus shelters, but that number has declined this winter.
“Definitely this year we’re seeing fewer individuals in bus shelters and encampments than the past two seasons during COVID,” Clemens said.
Clemens credits increased outreach work and the new Indigenous-led warming centre on the Disraeli Freeway for the fewer calls to bus shelters. But she also says there are still many people out on the streets during the bitterly cold winters, and some choose not to go to shelters for a myriad of reasons.
“Emergency shelters and safe spaces can’t meet everyone’s needs, largely because they’re designed as kind of large congregate facilities,” she said. “So for many folks, that can pose a safety risk or they may simply not feel comfortable going there because of anxiety around crowdedness, around noise, perhaps due to past negative experiences with shelters, perhaps they’re concerned about rules or running into someone that they had a past conflict with.”
“Thank goodness that there’s fewer people outside this season, but we still have a long way to go.”
Addictions contributing to homelessness
A factor many times for those finding themselves homeless can be addiction. It’s a problem that has also continued to climb through the pandemic and has taken a sharp increase in the past year.
“The lethality of the drugs we’re seeing, is one we’ve never really seen before,” Cory Guest a paramedic public education coordinator with the city of Winnipeg says. “Our opioid numbers are absolutely shocking.”
New numbers from the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service show when looking at January of this year compared to last, cocaine, crystal meth, and marijuana all saw a decrease in substance-related calls. Opioids saw a 73-call jump.
Guest says many users are unknowingly using a variety of drugs.
“We’re getting patients presenting like they’re on multiple different drugs,” he says. “They don’t always get what they think they’re getting. We’re finding that different substances are being cut and combined and cross contaminated with various other drugs.”
He calls drug use a “mixed bag”, a similar sentiment from Marion Willis of St. Boniface St. Links.
“Drug users out there these days tends to be I would describe our users as more poly-substance users.”
Nalaxone use, the antidote used to treat opioid overdoses, has increased from 232 doses administered in January of 2021 to 325 in January of this year.
Guest says those numbers show just how lethal drugs are right now.
“It’s taking more nalaxone to treat patients because the incoming drugs are simply that deadly.”
Willis says the need for better and consisent access to detox services is urgent.
“In a city of 800,000 people and the challenges we have, we don’t even have a 24/7 access point for detox,” she says.
A growing addiction challenge, she says, made worse like many problems by a two year pandemic.