Below is the article by reporter Malak Abas appearing on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press on May 29, 2023. It is good in that it highlights a problem that we have been trying to bring to the attention of our City government, but at the same time, disappointing in that the focus is largely on the build up of garbage, and not on the larger issue of people trying to survive in horrible living conditions with no access to clean water, toilets, food or social services. What kind of a society do we live in where we allow this to occur in the middle of our city, within everyone's sight, and no one in a position of power is reaching out to help these poor souls.
The article does a great job on focusing on the garbage issue, but I would hope that a follow up article discusses the issue of allowing people to live in substandard, ghetto-like conditions in the middle of a first-world prosperous city, without providing alternative housing, care and services.
by MALAK ABAS
KATHY Smith is sick of the garbage.
She’s staying in an encampment along Waterfront Drive, in the Fort Douglas Park neighbourhood. The grassy brush lining the Red River has been a popular spot for the unhoused to take shelter for several years. As a result, garbage from abandoned encampments and current residents has grown into a mess that creeps in from all angles, washing up on the riverbank and spilling onto the bike trail and sidewalk opposite condos and apartments lining the street.
Piles of plastic containers, trampled- on food, used syringes, empty medication bottles, broken glass, suitcases, shopping carts and all manner of detritus is everywhere. Some floats on the edges of the water, while lighter trash is moved further into the camp by the wind. A single, small garbage bin sits near the sidewalk, and it is overfilled.
MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ‘Bags and bags of garbage come in from the (river) every day,’ says Kathy Smith who is staying in an encampment along Waterfront Drive, in the Fort Douglas Park neighbourhood. Some of the trash is from the small group of people (Smith guesses fewer than 10) currently staying in the encampment, but much of it blows in from the river or was here when they arrived, she said.
“Bags and bags of garbage come in from the (river) every day, so it’s just constantly picking up garbage,” the 36-year-old said while setting up her tarp against a tree Friday morning. “Garbage bags are a must, a total must. But I’m homeless, without an income, so how am I going to afford all these garbage bags?”
She’s cleaning today. Several days earlier, outsiders raided the camp, tore down tents and threw belongings everywhere. When asked what the nearby residents might not know about the trash issue in the encampment, she said it’s impossible to mitigate the sheer amount of mess every day.
“It’s really hard to get rid of garbage in a forest… I’ve already heard some bikers and cyclists (yell) ‘Clean up your mess! Pick up all your garbage!’” she said.
“I’m trying to.” The City of Winnipeg’s Non-Emergent Encampment Support Process document states that the public works department will clean abandoned encampments of debris, garbage and belongings left behind.
When an encampment is occupied, but garbage has accumulated in an “excessive” way, public works is supposed to perform what it calls “mindful” cleanups.
Exchange District residents say those cleanups aren’t happening, and it’s made the neighbourhood a less livable place.
“It’s not like we don’t do our share of garbage picking up, we go out every week and pick up garbage in the neighbourhood. We’re not asking the city to do it all, but at least do something,” Cecil Duncan, who lives in the area, said while walking along Waterfront Drive.
“Where do you start? I can’t do this. We need a front-end loader, we need a truck. I’m sure we could stay in one spot and fill a green garbage bag,” his wife, Patricia Duncan, said.
“And nobody would notice,” added Cecil.
MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Cathy Smith takes a break from cleaning up the surroundings of her home inside an encampment along the Red River near Waterfront Drive.
John Giavedoni, the head of the Residents of the Exchange District group, said the community has been forced to take large-scale cleanup into its own hands because the city public works department’s plan of action to connect with community organizations to find other accommodations for unhoused people, and to help clean occupied encampments with excessive garbage, is not happening.
“I think everybody’s trying to be hands-off, and it’s sad, because nobody’s taking ownership. Maybe they’re not voters, maybe that’s the issue,” Giavedoni said.
One resident, Colleen French, calls herself the shopping cart lady — she collects and recycles dozens of abandoned shopping carts as part of her regular cleanups around the place she calls home.
“Because of the stress and anxiety of living with the conditions that were starting to escalate, I tried to become very hands-on, just to deal with my sense of helplessness, really,” she said.
Last April, French was part of a massive community cleanup involving about 30 people fed up with the mess who filled a 20-cubic-yard dumpster with trash — an effort French, who has lived in the area for six years, called “futile” in the long run.
“We live with the idea of knowing that what we’ve dealt with for the last 3 1/2 years has not helped one single unsheltered person improve their lives.”
Point Douglas councillor Vivian Santos called the issue a consequence of a cyclical process; homeless people find accommodations and leave the encampments. Then, the city is too slow to go in and clean before new people move in, and the garbage continues to pile up, year after year.
“I’ve requested the city, many times, to even just put a bin… but unfortunately, it always comes down to dollars, right? Resources and staffing and costs,” she said.
She said she has reached out to the public works department seeking more information on getting more garbage bins and pickups in her ward many times without a response.
“Last year, we were trying to be super-proactive, and pushing, pushing, pushing to get it done… and then, next thing you know, (there’s) snow and ice and the ground has frozen, and here we are.”
The city denied a Free Press request for an interview and instead sent a statement.
“If the encampment is not occupied, our crews will respond with the highest priority as resources allow,” corporate communications manager David Driedger said in an email.
MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Piles of plastic containers, trampled-on food, used needles, empty medication bottles, broken glass, suitcases, shopping carts and all manner of detritus can be seen strewn everywhere in the Fort Douglas Park neighbourhood.
“Our protocol is to remove abandoned materials once we have both confirmed they are in fact abandoned and have been able to access the site in question.”
Santos said the city is responsible for cleaning the garbage even if an encampment is occupied and called the situation “frustrating.”
“I think it’s still solely our responsibility as a city to pick up the garbage,” she said. “Not only just for environmental (reasons), but just human dignity for the residents who live around there, as well as the residents who live in the encampments.”
When 311 receives calls concerning garbage in encampments, they notify a variety of groups, including community support organization Resource Assistance for Youth.
RaY then visits the encampment and does what they can to help.
“Obviously, our first concern is the people at the site. So, how are they doing, what are their needs, and how can we help them?” said Breda Vosters, RaY’s director of grants and information.
“And then our next concern, obviously, is the site itself. So we’ll provide them with things to clean up if it’s messy; we’ll provide them with safe-disposal boxes, if there’s needles laying around.”
Vosters would like to see the discussion change.
“We’re not, as a city, supplying them with a bunch of garbage bins so that they can put their stuff in a proper place, right? We’re not actually providing them those resources,” she said. “So I think maybe the conversation about how we resource folks has to become the central focus, versus how we clean up after folks.”
She said she hopes residents living around the encampment understand that it isn’t as easy as simply transporting people to alternative housing and cleaning the space. It takes time, nuance and compassion from everyone in the community.
“If we’ve gone up to somebody and said, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten some complaints about this area, and that it’s really messy. We’re going to supply you with garbage bags and some gloves, can you clean it up?’ More often than not, folks are going to clean it up,” she said.
“They want, just as much as the next person, for the places that they live to be clean, to be safe.”
MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Trash collected from an encampment along the Red River near Waterfront Drive awaits removal last week.
Some Winnipeggers looking to help out and clean up have become creative.
The Fort Douglas Park encampment will host a dance party with free pizza and a DJ Sunday to encourage community members — in the encampment or surrounding buildings — to get to know each other and clean up the space.
Organizer Casandra Orantes said she and other planners approached people in the encampment with the idea after community members reached out to her.
“We connect directly to the encampment community to let them know that we want to create a cleanup with them. We’re inviting community members to be aware of the lack of resources that aren’t available for our unhoused communities, including garbage pickup and things like this,” said Orantes, a University of Winnipeg student.
It’s being organized by Pizza For Trash, a nationwide initiative that helps communities in need across the country clean up their space in exchange for pizza and music. Local group Garbage Gang is providing cleaning tools and pizza, and the music is coming from the Manitoba Bring Your Love Festival.
The city is dropping off a garbage bin for cleaners to use during the event.
“Nobody wants to be living in garbage and, of course, the businesses and the surrounding homes — it’s not ideal for anyone to see. Our intention by this is to really collaborate with the encampment communities as well as the different buildings and companies that are nearby so that everyone can engage,” Orantes said.
“We’re all working toward one goal.”