Riding along with the St. Boniface Street Links lived experience team as they meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness
Robert Lidstone – March 28th, 2020
“Keep calm, pray, and help others. God is with us!”
This is the message we read on the billboard outside the onion-domed Ukrainian Catholic church on Marion Street as our outreach van drives by. Mario, Derek, Stephen and I, all residents of the St. Boniface Street Links sober living community, are volunteering to canvass the local unsheltered population and distribute coffee, water and snacks. It’s a bright, sunny day, but unusually quiet amidst the disruptions and closures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Y’know, I pray every day to God,” says Derek. “I still think he hasn’t forgiven me for all the s#%& I’ve done.”
“You just haven’t forgiven yourself yet,” Stephen, his roommate, responds. A few moments of silence pass.
“I used to pray for myself, but now my prayers are to watch over people affected by this virus,” Derek reflects. At four months clean from methamphetamine, and with no outstanding legal issues, he is grateful for the change in perspective, made possible by the Morberg House program of recovery.
All four of us are thankful for the opportunity to serve others after having been trapped for so long in addiction and poor mental health. We each know what it is like to use meth persistently and be awake for days on end, suffer paranoia and psychosis, and ultimately end up without a home. We know what it is like to lose touch with real friends and family members; to become consumed by a relationship with a substance that hijacks your mind and body in the endless pursuit of more, only to leave you with less and less.
Day one of our travels introduces us to Coyote, someone we can all relate to. Huddled on a sidewalk corner outside the Tim Horton’s and the Liquor Store at Dominion Square, he readily shares his story with us. Once having run a business doing home renovations, Turtle lost everything after the fires in Fort McMurray, and migrated east. Now homeless in Winnipeg, he currently lives in an encampment on the Seine River, in a tent, despite the unpredictable March weather. He last had housing two months ago, and lost it when a relationship dissolved.
When asked what is needed out there, Turtle pipes up, “more washrooms!” Due to the pandemic, many public washrooms are completely closed, and it’s next to impossible to practice things like regular hand-washing. The three food outlets in the Square that are normally open 24/7, McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s and Subway, have all restricted use of their spaces to paying customers, and closed the dining areas that once gave refuge.
On Provencher Boulevard, stretched out on a park bench, we find Andrew, who is also homeless in St. Boniface. He manages to find spots where he can crash undisturbed, in between bouts of meth use, which he freely admits to us. Having once slept in ATM vestibules, hospital washrooms and apartment building stairwells myself, I immediately identify with him. I too once wandered the streets in search of food and shelter, and the next high.
Fortunately, I connected with the staff at Morberg House, after running into a friend who lived there at the library. That’s another public space closed down by the pandemic that street-involved folks usually rely on for computer access and respite from the elements. Through the Morberg House program, I was able to stabilize, stop using meth, and get an accurate mental health diagnosis, something that had eluded me for years.
What St. Boniface Street Links does to end homelessness and treat addiction and mental health really works. Our outreach team is made up of people with lived experience (meaning they’ve been there, done that) and supported by professionals like Antoinette, our staff psychiatric nurse. We proactively patrol the streets, identify who’s out there and what they need, and build relationships with people. SBSL staff work to connect individuals with income assistance, housing, and health care as appropriate. Both Turtle and Andrew indicated their desire to receive housing, and cited some of the barriers to getting and maintaining it.
One of these barriers was poor mental health. Once on disability income support for his chronic depression and PTSD, Andrew lost his social assistance because he failed to file paperwork on time. Another factor was meth addiction – he acknowledged that meth use ultimately led to his receiving an eviction notice, and that he’d allowed the wrong crowd into his apartment, which was damaged as a result.
Through Morberg House, a high-support, residential recovery program, SBSL has developed expertise in treating addiction to meth and other substances, and preventing a return to homelessness. We make sure that everyone who stays with us receives proper medical and psychiatric care, and that underlying mental health conditions are identified. Our service doesn’t end after a night’s or a month’s stay; we continue to follow each person from Morberg House into community living for up to two years. The journey towards stronger mental health and recovery from homelessness and addiction is a long-term one, not amenable to a quick fix.
Every member of our society has a right to housing, and the need for a home. By providing for not just the physical needs of food and shelter, but also the psychological and spiritual needs for belonging and purpose, St. Boniface Street Links continues amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to serve those whom others have given up on, those who’ve given up on themselves. We are truly thankful for the ongoing support of our donor community, for making it possible to restore the humanity and the dignity of our participants.
May you all stay safe and well.