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Calling for attention to the situation of those who are homeless in a Matter of Urgent Public Importance

On Wednesday March 3, the first  day we were sitting in the Legislature this spring, I called for a full debate on the government’s poor management of supports for those experiencing homelessness.  While I was not successful in getting a full debate, I got the discussion started and put the government on notice that it cannot repeat what happened this past winter with so many people experiencing homelessness and living in bus shelters. 

MATTER OF URGENT PUBLIC IMPORTANCE

Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): I move, seconded by the MLA for Tyndall Park, that under rule 38(1), the ordinary business of the House be set aside to discuss a matter of urgent public importance; namely, the poor management by the government of supports for those who are homeless during the coldest part of this winter, with the result that there were insufficient apartments and hotel spaces available for those who are homeless, with the result that far too many were living in bus shelters.

Madam Speaker: Before recognizing the honourable member for River Heights (Mr. Gerrard), I should remind all members that under rule 38(2), the mover of a motion on a matter of urgent public importance and one member from the other recognized parties in the House are allowed not more than 10 minutes to explain the urgency of debating the matter immediately. As stated in Beauchesne's citation 390, urgency in this context means the urgency of immediate debate, not of the subject matter of the motion.

      In their remarks, members should focus exclusively on whether or not there's urgency of debate and whether or not the ordinary opportunities for debate will enable the House to consider the matter early enough to ensure that the public interest will not suffer.

Mr. Gerrard: Madam Speaker, helping those experiencing homelessness–our friends and relatives on the street–has been much on the mind of Manitobans this winter. We've seen individuals experiencing homeless living in bus shelters all over the city.

The serious of this issue and the fact that there have been deaths associated and the fact that the crisis situation of those who are homeless has emerged so clearly since the Legislature last sat demonstrate that this is being raised at the earliest possible time and is extremely serious.

      As Ryan Thorpe has pointed out in his series, Life on the strip, the problem which has plagued Winnipeg for decades is growing. Under the present govern­ment, which has been in place for five years, there are more people experiencing homelessness and on the street, not fewer. With many places to which people who are experiencing homeless can go being closed or unavailable during the COVID pandemic, there were many who sought out and stayed in bus shelters.

      I talked, for example, to members of the transit union and I heard from James Van Gerwen and others that there were so many people experiencing homelessness that if bus drivers were asked to report everyone who is experiencing homelessness and in a bus shelter, they would be filing thousands of reports a day.

      The costs of homelessness in Winnipeg in the fiscal resources now being used–because we address it poorly and in human misery–are enormous. The extra visits to emergency rooms, the extra hospitalizations, the failure to help people achieve their potential are major adverse results of the poor approach being taken by the current government and, I will add, by the NDP government before them.

      The cost, in terms of human lives, is real. From what we know, there are three individuals who've died this winter in Winnipeg. The first was a man who died from exposure in St. Boniface on February 6th. The second was a woman who died February 16th in a fire  at a camp for those who were experiencing homelessness near Thunderbird House. The third was  a woman who was found in a bus shelter on February 20th.

      I want to speak briefly about the information I've received about the woman who died in relation to the fire, which happened in the camp near Thunderbird House. The information I've received is that she was 23 years old, from Sandy Lake in Ontario and that she was very involved in helping others in the camp. In fact, one person told me she was like a modern-day Florence Nightingale in helping others. I hope there will be more information coming out about her and her contributions to others. If the information I've received is accurate, it's a story which needs to be told.

      The answer to ending homelessness is to ensure that there's an apartment or a hotel for those who are experiencing homelessness. This has worked in Medicine Hat and it's worked in Finland in ending homelessness.

      I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a person experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg during the coldest days of our winter. He related to me how he'd been in Medicine Hat three years ago. He said, and I quote, in Medicine Hat, they don't even let you be homeless. They immediately put me in a motel and gave me access to resources. What he described is the night-and-day difference between Winnipeg, where this is not happening and where there has been little progress in ending homelessness today, and Medicine Hat, where they have ended homelessness.

      On February 7th of this year, Manitoba Liberals released a report entitled All the Way Home: Ending 40+ Years of Forced Homelessness in Winnipeg. We called for 10 actions: that the government open community centres and other City buildings as warming shelters; that the government ensure people can get prompt access to addictions treatment–the waiting time for detox is too long and services are not  co-ordinated; that the government create a single web-based dashboard of resources for those who are homeless with access point for services and wait times for each service as listed; that the government ensures there is signage and maps to help people, and that these are present in bus shelters and in gathering places; that there should be free masks present for those who are in bus shelters; that there should be a central dispatch and co-ordination centre for mobile help units; that the government fast-track those who are experiencing homelessness into an apartment and, if no apartment is available, into a hotel; that the government use Indigenous cultural approaches to welcome people in from the cold; and that the government help people all the way to a sustainable life path that is to help take people who are homeless all the way home.

      Madam Speaker, yesterday there was a government announcement of help for those who are experiencing homelessness. Now, this is a govern­ment which has been in government for five years. It took five years and after the worst of the cold weather before the government brings this forward. This is hardly swift action, and it comes after the coldest period of the winter instead of before and in preparation for the really cold winter.

      But, worse than this, the government is only planning to help 250 people. We know from the street census conducted in 2018 that the number of people experiencing homelessness is at least 1,500, and it's probably much higher than that.

      The government is only proposing to help a small fraction of those who are experiencing homelessness. This is the crux of why we need an urgent debate today. We need something that's much better. The government's actions this winter were clearly insufficient. The government's actions yesterday are only a fraction of what's needed.

Let us make a comparison. When people are homeless because of a forest fire or because of a flood,  the government puts them up in hotels. Why are people who are homeless in Winnipeg treated differently?

      We know many who are experiencing homeless­ness do so because of a family breakup, or because they've lost a job, or because they've aged out of care in Child and Family Services, or because they've been evicted, or because a family member has died, or because there's been a natural disaster or because they have a mental or physical illness. They should be treated the same as those who are homeless because of fire or a flood. There should be no difference.

      The government must get to work. There are lots of empty hotel rooms which could be used today. Why is the government stalling when action is possible right now? This government has been in place for five years. The concerns of those who are experiencing homelessness have been raised around the year and, in particular, when it's coldest each winter. Each time after the winter is over, the government has forgotten about those who experience homelessness.

      I'm asking for this debate today because the government needs to be held account for its shortcomings and for its inability to adequately help those who are experiencing homelessness. The people experiencing homelessness are like us. They are human beings. People experiencing homelessness have had challenges. They should be treated with dignity, and they should be helped. The government has not done enough and is not doing enough now, and that is why we need an urgent debate today on this in this Legislature.

      Thank you, Madam Speaker. Merci. Miigwech 

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