People experiencing homelessness are on the streets for a number of reasons. This may include poverty, addiction, mental illness or lack of community support. But they don’t hide in the shadows or down dark alleyways. We see them every day on our way to work or to the store.
Sometimes we say ‘Hello’, other times we just keep walking. In the fall of 2023, APTN News reporter Kathleen Martens and Social Media Editor Jesse Andrushko didn’t keep on walking – they stopped to learn about their lives, hopes and dreams.
Their five-part series Our Relatives takes a deep look at the over-representation of Indigenous Peoples in Winnipeg’s homeless population, who travel to the “big city” from their rural and remote nations for shelter and a stable life, and find anything but.
Have you ever heard of Karaoke at a homeless shelter? Neither had the folks at N’Dinawemak but they decided to give it a try. The Indigenous homeless shelter found it gave clients following a 12-step program the chance to sing without going to a bar, lifted spirits and promoted healing.
“I believe it brings people back to when they’re having a good time,” says Rick Moreland, who tackles the Guns ‘n Roses song, Patience. “Having a good time with people, socializing and kind of tribal mentality a little bit.”
Kathryn Myran, a former radio disc jockey, sang Strawberry Wine.
Her soft voice and good looks caused heads to turn, especially among the men.
“Believe me I do worry about my safety,” she says, “just especially being female. Sometimes you’ll dress down or even dress like a guy just to stay away from that.”
APTN News found Indigenous women accounted for 65 per cent of all female homicide victims in Winnipeg between 2018 and 2022. In 2022 alone, Indigenous women represented nearly 20 per cent of all homicides in the city, while making up just six per cent of the population.
Indigenous women also accounted for every unsolved female homicide in the last five years.
“I found myself in a situation where I had nowhere to turn. And luckily you know the shelters and people that are at the shelters they’ve helped me. So um I’m just trying to find myself again, I guess.”
If homeless women had a dollar for every time they felt unsafe they, well, wouldn’t be homeless. But in reality they are preyed on in public and private spaces, including homeless shelters.
Theresa Bauer fled to a bus shelter after being sexually assaulted at N’Dinawemak – an Indigenous homeless shelter.
She lived in the bus shack for two months during a frigid Manitoba winter.
Motorists honked and flipped her the bird, but she didn’t care. She was safe.
A Cree woman from northern Manitoba, Theresa was five when her mother died. She was shipped 750 km south to Winnipeg to grow up in foster care.
Where she was sexually abused.
Advocates say poverty, addiction and domestic violence usually put women on the street.
Everyone likes to be remembered on their special day – even if they’re homeless. So much the better if suburban volunteers bring them a Costco cake and sing Happy Birthday.
One of those groups is Urban Wagons, founded by Kaylah Anobis.
“It’s really sad to me how people don’t have a house or a home that they can go to and just relax and feel safe,” she says, “and don’t have access to some essentials. Going to the washroom is a privilege, you know what I mean, to some people.”
There is a visible need for help. A woman on a downtown sidewalk, who appears to be high, isn’t wearing any pants. The group finds her some.
Anobis can relate. She was once addicted to drugs and slept in a friend’s car.
Volunteer Nicole Wiebe has a similar story.
“We’ve both been kind of down and out before,” Wiebe says. “I used to be an alcoholic and before that me and my kid ended up in a women’s shelter because I was an abused woman. So we lost almost everything – our home, my jobs, everything we owned. We kind of had to scrape our way back from that.”
That’s why the group promised to bring a cake to celebrate a man’s birthday during its Friday night supper service.
But the birthday boy wasn’t there.
Instead a woman who’s birthday was earlier in the week got the prize.
What were they thinking? That’s what a homeless couple living behind Winnipeg’s downtown library was wondering after a team of do-gooders sent police to do a welfare check on, wait for it, their cat.
Elena and Leo had been evicted from where they were staying with their pet, Duma.
“We’ve had him since he was four weeks old,” says Elena. “We found him under a dumpster. We basically tried to not attach ourselves to him but I’m an animal lover so I can’t help it.”
Elena admits Duma slowed them down.
“We’ve tried to go other places than here and we’ve tried to take the cat, for example, and we put all of our stuff in a cab” and “the minute he sees the cat he’s like ‘Oh, get the cat out of here.’ It’s like, well, he’s not coming out of here, he’s in a kennel. He’s like ‘My car, no cat.’ Then we’ve been stuck here.”
Shelters won’t accept pets either. Unless they’re a recognized emotional support animal.
But dealing with the police was the worst.
“Cops show up and they come right up to the cat and they go, ‘How’s your cat doing?’” says Elena, “and we’re like, ‘cat’s fine, we’re taking care of him. And then they go, ‘Are you? Because cats shouldn’t be outside. Have you ever thought of surrendering him? Giving him a new home?’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s not an option.’ And the cops go, ‘Well, are you giving him the best life you can or what?’”
On a cool fall day, as the scent of smudge lingers in the air, the homeless people who died in 2023 are remembered at a ceremony in Hope Alley.
The narrow concrete laneway isn’t much to look at. There are a few wooden benches and some flower boxes.
It’s where Jacob Kaufman fights back tears as he reads out the names of 36 people known to have died.
“I’ve been doing this for five years,” Jacob says, “I grew up on the streets across North America. This is my family. This is my mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles and it gets hard. Yeah, sorry, I’ve got to walk away. I’m about to have a moment.”
Everyone agrees it’s been a horrible year on the streets and the real death toll is probably three or four times higher.
“This year’s been the hardest that I can remember in terms of the people we’ve lost in the community,” says Jamil Mahmood from the Main Street Project homeless shelter across the street from Hope Alley. “Between the poverty and everything, and then the toxic drug crisis, we’re seeing more deaths than we’ve ever seen.”
Mahmood says the full death toll is definitely higher – maybe three or four times higher – than 36.
“We know we’re not capturing everybody,” he says.
Researchers say experiencing homelessness can cut seven to 10 years off a person’s life expectancy.
A hard fact and an important one.
Reporter’s Note: While recording the Hope Alley ceremony, Jacob Kaufman handed me a list with the names of the 36 people who died and whispered ‘Do something about it.’ So I made this episode. To mark in the world book that that they were here.
Written and reported by Kathleen Martens
Recorded, edited and page by Jesse Andrushko
Produced by Mark Blackburn
Theme music by Backyard Rink
Cover art by Shania Murdock and Alicia Don