With ridership plummeting, bus shelters become hot spot for injection drug users, Bear Clan says

By | April 23, 2020

With classes on hold and ridership down, a city bus shack in front of the University of Winnipeg has become a hot spot for injection drug users who can be found shooting up at almost any time of day.

The shelter is normally filled with students and other transit users, but during the coronavirus pandemic — as bus ridership has dropped by 72 per cent — it has turned into a popular hangout spot for the city’s homeless and people living with drug addictions.

In recent weeks, a woman was seen by a CBC reporter injecting both herself and another person with drugs in broad daylight. On Tuesday, a man was seen sweeping the ground outside the shelter with a mop, before heading inside to shoot up.

The bus shack is one of just several across the city where evidence of drug use, including used needles and other litter, has been observed by CBC in recent weeks.

Sometimes Winnipeg Transit supervisors are first to deal with the problem, says the executive director of a union that represents about 75 of the supervisors.

WATCH | Bus shacks become hangout spot for the homeless:

“Certainly these are scary situations sometimes that they’re walking into,” said Keith Bellamy, who is with the Winnipeg Association of Public Service Officers.

Keith Bellamy is with the Winnipeg Association of Public Service Officers, a union representing about 75 Winnipeg Transit supervisors. (John Einarson/CBC)

Bellamy said while issues of safety and illegal activity are not uncommon in Winnipeg’s downtown core, there has been an increase in trouble inside bus shacks since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“There is some concern that with the restrictions on gatherings and openness of spaces and buildings related to the pandemic there is more activity happening in bus shelters than there has been in the past.

“Certainly that is a real concern for our members.”

Inside the bus shelter in front of the Centennial Concert Hall on Main Street, needle caps and syringe packages could be seen scattered on the ground Tuesday.

People in the bus shelter in front of the Centennial Concert Hall on Tuesday. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

A father who rides the bus with his kids expressed dismay but didn’t want to be interviewed.

Exchange District patrols checked on people sitting in the bus shack, and then moved on.

“I’m seeing groups of people [high] in bus shacks. That’s where they’re staying the night,” said James Favel, the executive director of the Bear Clan Patrol.

“Even across from St. Boniface Hospital, they’re in there — they’ve got their clothing, they’ve got their food and they’re camping out in there. I mean, it’s not good.”

Volunteers with the citizen patrol group pick up used needles in several neighbourhoods around the city.

James Favel says homeless people are going into bus shacks because malls, libraries, and other places they would normally use to congregate are closed. (John Einarson/CBC)

Favel said from January to March, volunteers collected more than 80,000 used needles. He said the total count in all of 2019 was 145,000. He worries if the current pace continues, the patrol will double last year’s count.

The worst spot in the city right now is McMicken Street between Sargent and Ellice in the West End, he said.

On any given night in the back alley, Bear Clan volunteers will collect anywhere from 20 to 500 used needles.

“Because there’s not a lot of resources available to homeless people right now, they’re congregating wherever they can and the IV drug use is going right on in the streets here. That’s a kiddie park right there, you know. It’s scary. The University of Winnipeg is two blocks [away].”

He showed CBC the many used syringes, needle caps, and other garbage in the alley and wondered if a supervised consumption site would help long-term.

The Bear Clan Patrol says in one back alley, it may collect up to 500 used needles like this one each night. (John Einarson/CBC)

He isn’t sure what the solution to the problem could be, but says something has to be done in the interim during the pandemic.

“If this is going to go on for another 12 weeks then we need to provide a space for these people … to be able to congregate, clean themselves up, wash their clothes, get proper food and things like that. A warm place to sleep.”

A city spokesperson said Winnipeg Transit inspectors will continue to monitor bus shelters for vulnerable citizens.

If a person appears to be under the influence or unable to care for themselves, the spokesperson said, the inspector will call police or the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.

A woman injects drugs on April 3 in a bus shelter in front of the University of Winnipeg. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

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