Deadly explosion at homeless camp prompts calls for action in housing crisis

WINNIPEG — A local organization is calling for changes to help better address the housing crisis in the city after a deadly explosion at a homeless camp on Tuesday.

End Homelessness Winnipeg said affordable housing in the city does not meet the needs of the city’s homeless population.

On Tuesday, fire crews were called to an explosion at a homeless camp on Higgins Avenue. One person was found dead when the flames were extinguished.

End Homelessness said it has been working on supporting people who are unsheltered for the last two years. It calls this death the worst-case scenario.

“The encampments are a direct result of a housing crisis, a crisis precipitated by an affordability gap but also by decades of development that hasn’t necessarily aligned with the needs we see in our community,” said Kris Clemens, who is the manager of community relations for the organization.

She said housing options are limited for those who are trying to leave homelessness and she thinks the city needs more low income, low barrier housing.

“How much longer as a community are we going to allow this to continue, instead of just putting the resources in place?”

Mayor Brian Bowman said on Wednesday that he sent an urgent letter to the premier last week about the cold weather and the impact it has had on the homeless population.

Bowman thinks the province should use empty city facilities as daytime warming huts and staff them with provincial employees. He said the province declined.

“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been that sense of urgency from our provincial partners in areas of their jurisdiction. So we’ll continue to look at what we can do to provide support,” said Bowman.

Bowman said he has been talking with Families Minister Rochelle Squires to see how more warming spaces could be provided.

Brian Pallister said his government has already made strides to support the homeless.

“Minister Squires just announced close to a half million dollar investment in a COVID isolation unit at the Main Street Project, and I’ll leave it at that. Your research will demonstrate dozens of other examples where we’re supporting those in need,” said Pallister.

In an email to CTV News, Squires said the government has invested millions of dollars since 2020 to operate an isolation site as well as expand homeless shelter capacity.

“Our government will continue working with community partners and with the City of Winnipeg to support and protect Manitobans experiencing homelessness,” she said. “As I have told Mayor Bowman, I welcome any opportunity to meet with him and discuss how Winnipeg and the province could collaborate to ensure that funding from both our government’s results in the best outcome.”

She said she advised Bowman to partner with community agencies to help with warming centres.

She added her department has also been in discussions with End Homelessness Winnipeg about the situation.

“End Homelessness Winnipeg has reiterated the urgent need for the city to reopen public washroom facilities as restrictions allow. I particularly commend Mayor Bowman and Winnipeg’s city council for making one of its facilities available as a drop-in site for street-involved women.”

Clemens said sleeping outside in a tent is not a reasonable alternative to having a home.

“Tragic event this week, but it’s reflective of an ongoing, much larger crisis in our community that we need to address,” said Clemens.

She thinks more rapid housing projects are needed in Winnipeg and then the city and province need to look at dealing with the issues that contribute to being homeless.

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