As only shelter in The Pas closes for repairs, homeless people ‘sleeping anywhere and everywhere’

Dozens of people in The Pas have been forced to sleep on the street after the only homeless shelter in the northern Manitoba town closed its doors for renovations earlier this month, leaving some wondering how Manitoba Housing allowed it to fall into such disrepair in the first place.

With nowhere else for people to sleep, the sudden closure of Oscar’s Place sent the local friendship centre scrambling to buy enough tents and sleeping bags so the town’s homeless wouldn’t freeze.

“You see these lost souls on the street with nothing,” said Dena Johnson, executive manager of The Pas Friendship Centre.

“They’re sleeping anywhere and everywhere.”

The closure came just as the Canadian Mental Health Association took over operations of the shelter, which is owned by the provincial agency Manitoba Housing.

Manitoba Housing and the CMHA closed the shelter for eight weeks on Sept. 1 for badly needed repairs, necessitated by vandalism this summer and years of wear and tear.

The shelter also needs time to hire more staff, after facing a severe shortage since a COVID-19 outbreak last October.

Dena Johnson is the executive manager of The Pas Friendship Centre. She and the executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, which operates Oscar’s Place, are buying tents, sleeping bags and blankets for those in need while the shelter is closed. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Johnson said she has seen the effect of the closure on clients of her centre, which runs a daily lunch program.

She was told one night, six men were forced to crowd into a three-man tent without a working zipper.

“They were struggling to keep warm there … because it’s getting cold at night,” she said.

‘I want to go to jail’

Lionel Daniels, who was a regular at Oscar’s Place, now spends his nights at makeshift camps around the town. 

The group he sleeps with is forced to move locations frequently, for fear their stuff will be stolen if anyone discovers them.

Sleeping outside in the summer isn’t too bad, he said, but he relies on Oscar’s Place whenever it rains or when temperatures plummet in the winter.

With that colder weather on the horizon, I want to go to jail,” Daniels, who has a court date in a few days, told CBC News.

“I want to hibernate.”

But in the meantime, he and others want a new shelter while Oscar’s Place is being renovated.

James Wigley, the executive director of the Swan Valley branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, and staff at Oscar’s Place are working daily to clean up the shelter ahead of the major repairs being done through Manitoba Housing. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The Canadian Mental Health Association says it had no choice but to close the shelter temporarily while work is being done to bring it up to code.

The decision “was not something that we wanted to make,” said James Wigley, the executive director of the CMHA’s Swan Valley branch.

Needed repairs flagged in 2019 report

Before the shelter can reopen, Manitoba Housing has a long list of repairs, including flooring, bathroom renovations, new windows, a new security system, a locking metal door and fire safety upgrades. 

A spokesperson for Manitoba’s Families Department said the goal is to reopen by Nov. 1, after tenders were put out for the repairs with a Sept. 23 deadline.

Manitoba Housing, which has owned Oscar’s Place since 2018, has known the shelter was in need of repairs since 2019, after it received an inspection report from the non-profit organization that operated the shelter at the time, according to a spokesperson for the agency.

The spokesperson says attempts by Manitoba Housing to address the repairs in September 2020 were unsuccessful because a contractor couldn’t be secured.

Oscar’s Place is the only homeless shelter in The Pas. On Sept. 1, it temporarily closed its doors, citing badly needed repairs because of vandalism and years of wear and tear, coupled with a severe staff shortage. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The shelter was previously run by Stand Up for Oscar’s Place, a volunteer board. 

Its former chair, David Brauer, couldn’t say why Manitoba Housing didn’t get the repairs completed earlier, but thinks they could get the job done before Nov. 1. 

“I believe Manitoba Housing has the money to hire a crew from anywhere and get this done immediately,” he said.

“They need to step up and do it.”

New operator inherited problems

Wigley said the CMHA inherited a host of issues when it took over operations of the shelter on Sept. 7. 

Under the new agreement, the CMHA will get an annual grant of $355,000 from the provincial government.

While the shelter staff can take on the basic cleaning duties, the bigger repairs have to be done by Manitoba Housing, Wigley said.

When the CMHA took over the building, the flooring was not up to code. It was so bad that a staff member’s foot went through one of the floorboards, Wigley said.

A lack of staff contributed to the problem by giving people the opportunity to vandalize the place. That meant it often wasn’t safe to operate. 

Running the shelter overnight requires six staff members, but it only had three when it closed on Sept. 1.

Wigley said the CMHA is now aggressively trying to hire.

Wigley says the association had to shut down Oscar’s Place for an expected eight weeks to bring the building up to code. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Officials with Manitoba Housing admit that when the decision was made to close the building, they knew there was nowhere to house residents in the interim.

A interview request for Families Minister Rochelle Squires, the minister responsible for Manitoba Housing, was denied.

This is not the first time the shelter has faced closure. It was once owned and operated by the local friendship centre. 

Facing mounting financial pressure in 2017, the centre said it couldn’t afford to run the shelter anymore and would have to close it.

Manitoba Housing stepped in and bought the building in 2018, with Stand Up for Oscar’s Place running the shelter.

A spokesperson for the Families Department said multiple repairs were done at that time.

No temporary housing options: mayor

The friendship centre’s Johnson said there is widespread frustration over the lack of a contingency plan to house everyone during the current closure.

Some people in the community seem to feel homeless people won’t live in The Pas if they aren’t offered services, she said.

“So not everybody is willing to open their doors and welcome them.”

The Pas Mayor Herb Jaques says there isn’t any municipal-owned facility to use as a temporary shelter. The only place big enough would be the town’s rink and it’s already filled with ice for the hockey season. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The town’s mayor said the larger issue is the lack of resources his small community has to offer to people who are often coming from nearby First Nations.

“The town of The Pas just can’t do it on its own,” said Mayor Herb Jaques. 

There is currently nowhere in town that could be used as a shelter on an emergency basis, he said.

He also says most of the shelter’s residents struggle with addictions issues and need a treatment centre.

“The province of Manitoba has done a terrible job with those issues in our community,” he said. “You don’t have to look very far to see the shortcomings.”

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