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Fiery crisis of garbage at encampments

A team of 10 R:ED members have been working on the encampment issue for more than a year, sending dozens and dozens of emails to the mayor, councillors, city department heads, police, fire and our MLA. We have held two meetings with many of these people this summer at the site of these encampments on the riverbank along Waterfront Drive.


Despite all of this engagement, little, if anything, has improved -- in fact, with the cold weather the occurrence of fires has drastically increased. Our frustration has grown to the point that we thought we needed to involve the media again.


Four of our group were interviewed by Malak Abas yesterday, and the article that appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on November 9, 2023 is reproduced below.

 

WHEN area residents called on the city to take action on mounting garbage near a Waterfront Drive encampment in May, they were hopeful media attention would result in housing options for those living by the riverbank and a cleanup of the mess.

Instead, they say, the Fort Douglas Park site has only gotten more packed with trash and, as the weather gets cold, near-constant open fires started by people hoping to keep warm have been exacerbated by flammable garbage.


“There seems to be just as many encampments, there seems to be just as much garbage. There are just as many fire trucks coming there almost every single day, dealing with a fire or medical emergency or something of that nature,” Duane Rohne told the Free Press.


“So what’s changed in six months? Nothing. Just more rhetoric. I can’t see a single change.”


Residents near this garbage pile at an encampment at Fort Douglas Park say they have tried to alert the city since spring. Now fires burning for warmth are close to even more flammable trash. MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS


The City of Winnipeg’s non-emergent encampment support process document states the public works department will clean abandoned encampments of debris, garbage and abandoned belongings, and will hold “mindful” cleanups of excessive garbage while people are staying in the area.


Meantime, area residents say they’ve attempted to keep city staff and councillors, outreach workers and the Winnipeg Fire Paramedics Service updated, with resulting no action.

An email sent from the city’s senior adviser on homelessness promised to direct people staying at the encampment to resources and to clean up the area in September, if there weren’t “significant improvements” to the number of fires.


“There’s fires every two weeks. Are they waiting for a fire to take over the whole park, the whole forest area? (Or if) it spreads to a building on Waterfront?” said John Giavedoni, head of the Residents of the Exchange District grassroots group.


“The risk is there, and they’re not doing anything. I hate to be so negative to say, are they waiting for somebody to die?”


Complicating the issue is last week’s announcement from WFPS it would be changing how it responds to homeless encampments, decreasing the number of weekly visits and instead only attending sites with urgent concerns.


The WFPS had a dedicated fire prevention officer handling encampments over the past 18 months, but that position is ending, in part due to safety concerns caused by what fire Chief Christian Schmidt described as “aggressive or erratic behaviour” from people staying at the sites.


Rohne called the reasoning “absurd.” “But yet, it’s safe … for hundreds of residents that live in this area that frequent the walkways and the bike paths in this area?” Rohne said. “It’s safe for them but it’s not safe for these firefighters?”


WFPS community risk reduction assistant chief Lisa Gilmour said fire calls would still get an immediate response under the new strategy, as would attending to encampments under bridges.


“We’re trying to make sure that we can address resident safety across the city, and that includes those living within encampments,” she said.


“There is an increased number and we’re trying to get to as many as possible, but we have limited resources, as well.”


The frequency of cleanup protocol, which involves notifying public works and talking to encampment residents, will remain the same, she said.


“We are always working collaboratively with our partners on this … As we’re going forward with this change, we’re still going (to work) with our partners,”Gilmour said.


In a city that has lost 25,000 units of rental housing valued at $750 per month or less in the last decade, Winnipeg is “producing homelessness faster than we are solving it,” Main Street Project director of community initiatives Kate Sjoberg said.


The Waterfront Drive encampment typically receives more than one visit from community organization outreach teams per day, Sjoberg said. Some people staying in the encampment have been housed in transitional housing this year.


She described the disconnect between the WFPS and City of Winnipeg public works in their ability to regularly collect garbage from encampments as a “huge disappointment.”


“Unfortunately, I’m going to use the word neglect — neglect between public works and WFPS, and, frankly, a failure of being able to properly collect that garbage, has resulted in fires and fires that have resulted in unnecessary displacement,” she said.


The city needs to invest in structured, consistent garbage pickup schedules in places where homeless people stay or the constant displacement will continue setting back the work being done to get people into housing, Sjoberg said.


“It’s the people living unsheltered that end up being stigmatized, when it’s actually a public policy failure… but it’s the lack of housing that’s producing all of this disruption for everyone.”


malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca, Winnipeg Free Press. November 9, 2023

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