City asked for funds to convert Millennium Library coffee shop into space for people in need

By | January 16, 2020

A shuttered coffee shop in the lobby of downtown Winnipeg’s Millennium Library is now awaiting a green light from the city to start helping a different clientele.

A cup of coffee would still be available, but it would also come with crisis workers trained to help people in need.

Next week, members of the city’s executive policy committee will consider a request for $260,190 to convert the former Human Bean coffee shop into a community connections space for a two-year pilot project.

Vulnerable people who are homeless or with mental health or addictions issues would see the converted coffee shop immediately as they enter the library.

It’s part of a series of requests to EPC targeted at improving safety in Winnipeg’s downtown, including money to cost-share a director of downtown safety initiatives with True North Sports and Entertainment and funds to prompt downtown property owners to improve exterior lighting.

“If you walked downtown, you’ll trip over a coffee shop. There’s many opportunities to get coffee,” library services manager Ed Cuddy told CBC News.

“But for us to be able to have crisis workers here working with the community [and] be providing free coffee to people who could use it — I think is a much better use of this space.”

The closed coffee shop at Millennium Library would be converted to provide crisis support and other outreach help in two-year pilot. (Tyson Koschik CBC )

Cuddy says there is a certain natural evolution for the Millennium Library in offering this kind of help to some its customers

“The process has been so gradual within a somewhat compressed timeframe that it all kind of makes sense. I mean, the first indicator when we started looking at some of the challenges here — that we we could use a social worker position at the time — seemed radically like a radical move. And now it just totally makes sense. Why wouldn’t we have a social worker?” Cuddy said.

The library’s decision to enhance security last year was met with significant anger, as critics spoke out against measures that included bag checks and handheld metal detectors.

Cuddy hopes the community connections space marks the start of a different conversation and acknowledges there is more outreach to be done.

“We made some decisions last year that there was some backlash against. We need to involve the community. And if if there are other ways of doing it — what are they and how do we move forward?  We can’t do it in isolation. We learned that last year,” Cuddy said.

Security screening at the Millenium Library is still a focus of anger for some. (Lyzaville Sale CBC )

There may be a desire for more dialogue on the library’s part, but critics say the security measures still in place represent a move in the wrong direction.

“The first step should be to remove the barriers,” said Joe Curnow, with the Millennium For All group.

Curnow says the news of the community connections space makes her “cautiously optimistic and a bit skeptical.” 

“The library should be a public space, open to everyone … security screening drives people away.” Curnow told CBC News. 

Downtown safety: Phase 2

Councillors on the executive policy committee, along with the entire council later this month, are also being asked to consider the city’s participation in a range of initiatives aimed at making Winnipeg’s downtown safer.

Council approval is needed for a downtown safety partnership between the city, True North Sports and Entertainment and the Downtown BIZ.

It’s the second phase of a multi-year effort that includes several funding requests, many of which would be drawn from the city’s destination marketing reserve fund.

The city is being asked to:

  • Provide cost-sharing for half of the salary of a director of safety initiatives (up to a maximum of $125,000 over two years) in partnership with TNSE. The position has already been filled by former Winnipeg police officer Greg Burnett.
  • Pay $30,000 for a consultant to support the director of safety initiatives (also cost-shared with TNSE).
  • Provide $100,000 for security improvements to the Millennium Library parkade.
  • Provide $375,000 to continue funding the expansion of safe walk programs and patrols provided by the Downtown, Exchange and West End BIZ organizations.
  • Increase a subsidy (up to 90 per cent of eligible costs or $10,000) to private property owners to improve exterior lighting.

TNSE has taken a lead role in the downtown safety partnership (DSP).

It has established an operations centre using closed-circuit cameras at its own facilities at Bell MTS Place and True North Square and will slowly collaborate with other property owners and the Winnipeg Police Service, taking in feeds from other cameras. 

The city is being asked to provide just over $3,000 for two video screens for the effort.

A spokesperson for True North says “it’s our expectation that the capacity to increase cameras will be done so incrementally with direction from the DSP, once established.”

More patrols, fewer problems?

The request for funding to continue expanded patrols and safe walk programs is good news for the head of the Exchange BIZ.

The BIZ is reporting dramatic drops between 2018 and 2019 in calls for public assistance (down 56 per cent), open liquor (down 55 per cent) and panhandling (down 75 per cent). 

“I think just being out there and more regularly accounts for a lot of that,” said Exchange District BIZ director David Pensato.

Pensato says the Exchange neighbourhood is so well defined, his patrols get to know many of the people in the area.

“They have relationships with the regular panhandlers as well as the business owners and front staff and just kind of everyone in the neighbourhood,” Pensato said.

A spokesperson for the Downtown BIZ echoed Pensato’s enthusiasm to continue the enhanced patrols, although his group did not have year-over-year data showing similar decreases in calls for service or panhandling.