The City of Winnipeg is quickly backtracking on a pilot project aimed at deterring Winnipeg’s homeless population from settling near local infrastructure after public outcry.
The project, which city officials said began in April, used what the city calls “noise deterrents” — devices that emit high-pitched, shrill sounds — under four local bridges in an attempt to dissuade homeless people from setting up camps there.
In response to a tweet by the city about the initiative, Winnipeggers called the initiative “despicable,” “cruel” and “shameful.” Adding to the public frustration is the fact that city councillors say they weren’t informed the devices were being installed, even in their own wards.
The decision was made by the city’s public works department, and according to its director, was intended to be brought before council once data had been gathered on the devices’ effectiveness.
Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry Coun. Sherri Rollins told 680 CJOB one of the devices was placed under a bridge in her ward and that she found out about its existence via Twitter when a resident heard the sound and alerted her to it.
All of her council colleagues who could be reached Thursday morning, including councillors Vivian Santos, Janice Lukes, Kevin Klein, Shawn Nason, Brian Mayes, and Scott Gillingham, said they also had no prior knowledge the devices were being installed.
In a letter to Mayor Brian Bowman on Wednesday, Nason and Klein called the project ‘inhumane,’ ‘shocking’ and ‘unacceptable.’
According to an email sent to council by the city’s interim chief administrative officer Mike Ruta Wednesday night, the noise deterrents are set to be removed Thursday, but Rollins said the fact that they were installed in the first place was a disappointing move that caught council off guard.
She said it also flew in the face of the ongoing work council had been doing to find solutions for the city’s homeless population.
“I had a motion supporting unsheltered Winnipeggers. I had done another motion on 24-7 safe spaces… there had been some repeated policy moves and discussions within the administration,” said Rollins.
“We had worked really hard as a city, even going into last year, to not disperse people — to attach them to social services and housing, to really recognize a human rights-based framework that does not stigmatize people experiencing homelessness.”
City public works director Jim Berezowsky told 680 CJOB the devices aren’t entirely new to Winnipeg.
He said a frequency-emitting device has been installed for more than seven years on the south side of the pedestrian underpass at Fermor Avenue, just west of St. Mary’s Road, in an attempt to keep teenagers from congregating there.
Berezowsky said the four new devices, which each came with a $1,700 price tag, were a response to a series of fires under local bridges last fall.
“After those fires last fall, and the fact that those fires were adjacent to our bridge infrastructure, we had to look at opportunities to… mitigate the risk of long-term situations underneath that bridge infrastructure,” he said.
“The other reason was in the fall, we saw those high water levels as well. We’re concerned about citizens’ life safety being caught under the bridge with high water levels, so we’re looking at mitigation measures.”
The first device was installed at the Esplanade Riel, and Berezowsky said noise-emitting deterrents are fairly common across North America and used for a variety of reasons.
“It’s all to do with what your focus and intent is, and ours is protecting the infrastructure.”
Berezowsky said that during the short period of the trial project, it was successful in the sense that there were no fatalities and no fires adjacent to Winnipeg’s bridge infrastructure while the devices were in use.
Rollins, however, said Winnipeg needs to re-examine its approach and that decisions like installing the noise deterrents throw further stigma on an already vulnerable population.
“I receive, every single day, what I would consider almost hate speech against people living homeless, sleeping rough in this city,” she said.
“To see this, to see something that further stigmatizes homelessness in this city, it’s been very difficult to wade through this.”
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