Extreme winter weather, addictions, homelessness adding pressure to front-line resources: WFPS

Click to play video: 'Checking in on homeless encampments'
Checking in on homeless encampments
WATCH: The number of people enduring Winnipeg's bone-chilling winter in encampments is growing. And it's putting pressure on frontline resources. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service recently gave Global News a glimpse into those challenges. Global's Rosanna Hempel reports – Jan 30, 2023

Steven Antle slides and steps his way down uneven terrain into a riverside homeless encampment, his boots crunching through the snow.

“Good morning, sir. How we doing?” he calls out. It’s so cold Antle’s breath hangs in the air.

The site sits largely empty, aside from two men living there, their tents exposed to bitter January wind funneling along the Red River.

Antle’s arrived to connect them with help and keep their encampment safe.

“Nobody should be living outside in Manitoba during this time,” Antle told Global News earlier in the day.

But many are, and the number of people enduring Winnipeg’s bone-chilling winter in encampments is growing, so much so the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) created his full-time outreach position a few months ago, he said.

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The extreme weather is also putting pressure on front-line resources. WFPS recently gave Global News a glimpse into the challenges those living in encampments face.

“A lot of times they’re telling me, you know, real intimate, personal things that happened to them in their life, and to be honest with you, if those things happened to me, I’d likely be living, you know, in an encampment as well,” said Antle, who serves as a community liaison with WFPS.

“It’s devastating some of the hurts that folks are carrying.”

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service created Steven Antle’s full-time outreach position a few months ago to connect people living in encampments with help and keep them safe. Josh Arason / Global News

Antle approaches the first tent and introduces himself to a man who’s emerged with his hands tucked under his sleeves.

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“Has anybody been out to chat with you?” Antle asks. He learns St. Boniface Street Links is in touch about housing.

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Antle moves from site to site to give advice and listen. Until people can find addictions help, housing and income assistance, Antle travels with tools that have saved lives, including a carbon monoxide detector and naloxone kits.

“I was able to convince people and get them out into safety, used my carbon monoxide detector and got a reading of 183 ppm, which is very, very devastating,” Antle recalled of one incident.

SAFE Work Manitoba tells employers average concentrations shouldn’t exceed 25 ppm over an eight-hour period.

Some of the ways people try to stay warm break city encampment fire safety rules, including using propane heaters or wood fires inside tents, Antle said.

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service community liaison Steven Antle goes over the city’s fire safety guidelines when he visits homeless encampments. Rosanna Hempel / Global News

“It’s really, really unsafe, but it’s something that’s, that they almost have to do to stay, to stay alive, right? It’s the difference between, you know, dying in a fire or freezing to death,” Antle said.

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Antle approaches the second tent, where he learns the person there narrowly survived a tarp fire the day before. The man tells Antle he has an upcoming Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) appointment, which Antle says he’ll try to reschedule earlier.

The scorched trees in a Point Douglas park by the Louise Bridge are part of what’s left of an old encampment site. It had to be dismantled before Christmas because of ongoing fire safety issues, including a propane-tank explosion that left a crater in the ground, Antle said.

WFPS Assistant Chief Scott Wilkinson said encampments are demanding more and more resources from agencies like WFPS.

In 2020, emergency personnel attended to 113 encampment fires, and in 2021, they responded to 181, a city spokesperson told Global News. Numbers for 2022 weren’t available Monday.

“We need housing, a Housing First strategy that involves wraparound substance abuse and mental health supports. That’s what’s going to get people off the streets into a better situation and take some of these pressures off,” Wilkinson said.

Winnipeg Police Service Sgt. Todd Martens told Global News many people staying in bus shelters and encampments tell him they don’t want their communities and groups broken up.

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“We need to accept that, and then we need to change our model to be able to make it work for all of them,” Martens said.

For Antle, additional housing with supports can’t come soon enough.

“It can be a long process because sometimes, you know, people want to go down that road and they fall.”

In the meantime, Antle said he hopes lending an ear and a hand will help save lives.

Click to play video: 'Winnipeg organizations work to help vulnerable people cope in cold snap'
Winnipeg organizations work to help vulnerable people cope in cold snap

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