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'These issues are all interrelated': Advocates are calling for changes to how the homelessness crisis is approached

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WINNIPEG -

Homeless advocates in Winnipeg are wanting to change the conversation around homelessness in the hopes of ending the crisis.

Marion Willis, the founder and executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, said the homeless demographic has started to shift ever since the drug crisis hit Winnipeg.

"Which now is 60 per cent Indigenous and 40 per cent others and it's not that there is less Indigenous homelessness, there's not. But there's so much more homelessness and that 40 per cent of others is born out of a drug epidemic that was never properly addressed," said Willis.

She added that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the issue even more, causing isolation and has made it difficult for people to find programming—such as a Rapid Access to Addictions Medication (RAAM) clinic—to help combat the addictions they're dealing with.

Willis said moving forward, there needs to be a new way on how homelessness is viewed, noting it can be caused by a variety of factors like mental health and addictions.

As part of this, she also wants the provincial government to start a new approach to handling this problem. She feels the government has helped by providing funding to certain programs, but she would like to see government sectors join forces to address all the needs of the homeless population.

"Government needs to understand that the increase in homeless numbers, the increase in people struggling with mental health and addictions, the need for more housing and low barrier housing, the increase in property and other types of crime stats, all of these issues are all interrelated, they aren't separate issues," said Willis.

"Government has got to relook at this and think about the interrelatedness of all of those government departments at those highest levels to begin to plan across government departments."

Mitch Bourbonniere, who is with the Downtown Community Safety Partnership, added there are so many factors that can lead to homelessness that there can't just be one approach to fixing the problem.

"Everybody needs to start working a little bit more closely with one another together, in partnership," said Bourbonniere.

Right now, he feels there needs to be more resources available to deal with addictions, more places where people can receive mental health help and more creative options to provide housing for those looking to recover.

Willis added that the programs available now are not resourced enough for the number of people looking for help.

"The consumer group that really needs to access those services are growing in numbers and need help every day, and so the demand for those services far exceeds what the province is planning for," she said. "When it comes to addiction, you actually have to be able to provide those services, like right now, when that person says, 'I'm ready and I'm willing, let's go,' you have to be ready to take that person and the system needs to be ready to receive that person," said Willis.

She said there is currently a wait time for detox beds between four and six weeks.

"If you can't provide an alcoholic or a drug addict detox when they're ready to go, they basically just go back to continue to do what they were doing before."

Both Willis and Bourbonniere feel the government also needs to take advice from the organizations that help those who are struggling as they are on the streets seeing what is affecting people every day.

"I think the province is well-intended, and I think the province really does want to do a good job of this, but their information needs to come from organizations like ours and the others out there that serve this population," she said.

"Maybe we should have an advocate, a provincial advocate, who reports directly to the premier on issues of homelessness and unsheltered folks," said Bourbonniere.

He added he would also like to see some committee formed that has representatives from all levels of government that could help better address the current situation.

'I THINK HEATHER STEFANSON HAS A REAL OPPORTUNITY.'

With Manitoba set to have a new leader, as Heather Stefanson won the leadership race for the provincial PCs, Willis is hopeful the former health minister can take her experience from that position and use it to help those struggling when she becomes premier.

"I think Heather Stefanson has a real opportunity to build and demonstrate an entirely different type of leadership, to model a different leadership style," said Willis, "A style that actually reaches out and communicates with the organizations that are actually delivering services. To hear us and understand that we are likely the best informants she will ever have if she really wants to plan successfully … to address all these areas."

She added that she thinks Stefanson has the chance to make history on several fronts, not just becoming the first female premier of Manitoba but also one that addresses these serious issues and one that will become the people's premier.

FIRST STEP AFTER THE PANDEMIC

As the province continues every day to return to the new normal following the pandemic, Willis is asking that a systems table be formed between the organizations and government, where they can sit down and discuss the best practices to fix the climbing numbers in the homeless population.

"We need our arms back. We need the support to be effective in our role as the service-delivery arm of government."

"It needs to be a cross-government department planning with grassroots organizations so we can deliver a multi-systemic plan that is multidisciplinary in its service delivery model."

She said if an effective plan can be created that can help reduce the number of people who are living on the streets, it will, in the end, help the province save money as fewer people will require help from EMS, lower police calls and it will take some strain off the health-care system.

In a statement to CTV News, a spokesperson for Manitoba Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery, said the pandemic has taught the government that the current system needs to be changed.

"Manitobans deserve a system that is easier to access, easier to navigate and provides them with quality care that meets them wherever they are on their path to recovery," the spokesperson said.

They said a five-year action plan is being developed to address issues like mental health and substance abuse and the government plans to work with community partners.

"These successful models include new Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine clinics and integrated youth service hubs."

A spokesperson for Manitoba Justice said it is supporting law enforcement and community members who are working to help those with substance abuse issues.

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