Residents of homeless encampment gear up for city takedown

By | June 9, 2020

Robert Russell is getting ready for his home to be taken away from him. The 55-year-old lives in a tent outside the Manitoba Metis Federation near the Disraeli Bridge.

Residents in the camp, as well as a neighbouring encampment on Austin Street, are expecting the city to dismantle the two setups Wednesday. 

The move by the city comes following a legal threat from the Manitoba Metis Federation, which has its headquarters just metres away from two different homeless encampments on city land.

“Where else are you gonna go? You’re gonna end up in somebody’s backyard in Charleswood or River Heights or wherever and then you have this whole mess that’s going to unfold,” said Russell, who’s been living in the camp on Lily Street since last December. 

Russell, a chef by trade, said he chooses to live in the camp instead of a nearby hotel room that social assistance would pay for because he says conditions in them are deplorable.

“The place that you live at is less than a garbage pit really because you got mice, rats, cockroaches, bedbugs, the locks on the doors don’t work, people are walking into your room so the safety there is none.”

Robert Russell at the homeless encampment outside the Manitoba Metis Federation’s headquarters on Lily Street Monday. Russell and other homeless people who live in the camp as well as one steps away on Austin Street are getting ready for the city to take them down on Wednesday. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Russell, who has lived in other cities including Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, said Winnipeg is one of the toughest places to be homeless.

He feels there are too many rules that prevent someone like him from getting back on his feet like mandatory check-in times at shelters.

“If you have to work in the evening you might not have a bed so your choices are do I work or do I sleep tonight? And that was kind of a complicated choice to make.” 

WATCH | Robert Russell’s message to the city:

Robert Russell lives in a homeless camp the city is set to take down. He has a message for the city. 0:58

The city has agreed to dismantle the camp after getting complaints from the Manitoba Metis Federation and support agencies like the Main Street Project and End Homelessness Winnipeg. 

‘High level of threat’

“All parties have agreed that there’s currently a high level of threat to the life [and] safety of the residents at that location due to some of the escalating concerns that have been highlighted around violence, exploitation, as well as fire and health safety issues,” said Kris Clemens, communications manager with End Homelessness Winnipeg.

Clemens acknowledged the situation is complicated and said agencies are trying to respect the residents’ human rights while balancing safety. 

“These individuals need to have options to be able to claim their right to housing. Those options have been limited by varying social forces that are at play in our city including the thousands of families in core housing need, the lack of sufficient supply of low income and supportive housing and cultural appropriate housing models for people.” 

Kris Clemens, communications manager with End Homelessness Winnipeg. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The city has not made it clear how it will take the camp down, but both Clemens and Russell said they expect the dismantling to happen sometime Wednesday. 

Police won’t lead eviction

Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth said police are not going to be leading the eviction.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the police to take a lead on that. What we will do is support that if we need to just to ensure things are done peacefully but I don’t think it’s our role to clear the camps,” he told reporters Monday.

Russell isn’t sure where his next home will be. “I don’t know. I’m pretty resilient so I’m sure I’ll have something.”  

One of two homeless camps outside the Manitoba MĂ©tis Federation. The above encampment on Austin Street recently had a fire. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The city’s plan to take down the camp is an about-face. Last spring, it put out a request for proposals looking for a contractor to remove waste from temporary homeless camps on city property.

The plan attracted swift opposition from homeless people and advocates and was later quashed following public criticism that included a protest outside city hall.

City spokesperson Julie Dooley said when the Supporting Unsheltered Winnipeggers group met last week, all parties agreed that residents of the two camps in question would be given a minimum of six days’ notice that they are required to leave the premises.

“The outreach agencies which sit on the committee mobilized to link willing individuals with appropriate supports, alternate housing, and other assistance as required, and also committed to arranging for storage of any belongings as required.”

She said city crews and not a third-party contractor will visit the camps to remove anything that has been left behind.

Dooley added other encampments around Winnipeg are being evaluated by the group and could come down if there are health and safety concerns that can’t be mitigated.

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