Hungry and desperate: Address basic needs to improve downtown Winnipeg safety, community groups say

As food continues to get more expensive, more people are in need — and hungry people are desperate people, says the head of the Winnipeg’s Bear Clan Patrol.

Kevin Walker, the citizen patrol group’s interim executive director, says he sees a link between hunger and increased crime.

“Hungry people and thirsty people are usually desperate people,” he told CBC Manitoba’s Marcy Markusa, host of Information Radio, in an interview Wednesday.

He related a recent experience while on patrol in the city’s North End, passing by a convenience store on Salter Street.

“We passed a young gentleman who I stopped and asked if he needed something to eat or something to drink. He replied, ‘Yes, that would be very helpful, because I was just about to rob 7–Eleven.'”

Concerns about safety in the city’s core are growing after a recent bout of violent incidents in The Forks and the surrounding area, including the stabbing of a Ukrainian refugee on Canada Day.

The victim in that stabbing says he is now considering leaving the city, said Joanne Lewandoski, president of the Ukranian Canadian Congress’ Manitoba provincial council.

“I’m embarrassed, as a Manitoban, that things like this are happening to people who were fleeing a country that is at war and then they come here, where they think it is safe, and they get attacked,” she said.

A spate of stabbings, including a fatality, have raised concern about safety at The Forks in Winnipeg. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

She recently visited the man, who remains in hospital in stable condition, to offer support.

He told her he and a friend had only been in Canada for two weeks and, on Canada Day, had just moved into their downtown Winnipeg apartment, she said.

They went to The Forks because “they felt they should go and celebrate,” she said. But near the site, they brushed shoulders with three males, Lewandoski said.

When the Ukrainian men turned to apologize, they were pepper-sprayed, and one of the men was stabbed.

“They chose Canada because it’s a peaceful country, it’s a welcoming country. [Now] he doesn’t feel safe,” said Lewandoski.

“Is it safe to walk in the evenings to The Forks? I’m not sure.”

Bring people downtown: safety partnership exec

The attack happened just days after two other incidents in the area.

A father and daughter were attacked by a group of teenage girls in an attempted robbery in the parking lot at The Forks on June 27. Two days later, two men were stabbed outside the main market building.

In May, a man died after being stabbed in The Forks parkade.

“Like every Winnipegger, we hate to hear these stories … but they are there, they’re front and centre,” said Greg Burnett, executive director of the Downtown Community Safety Partnership — a collaboration between the City of Winnipeg, the provincial government, the Downtown Business Improvement Zone and True North Sports and Entertainment. 

His group works to ensure the basic needs of vulnerable people are being met. He agrees with Walker that “a health and well-being approach” is necessary to improve safety.

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on “social needs, basic needs that need to be covered with our houseless community, the vulnerable and at-risk community,” Burnett said.

Making inroads on those issues won’t happen overnight, he said. It will require patience and action from the general public, said Burnett, pointing out that people feel safer when others are around.

“One of the best ways to increase safety is having people downtown, mingling, getting together, wherever the venues may be.”

It’s vital to get people back downtown, after the pandemic emptied office buildings and forced many businesses to close, said Burnett.

“Whatever we could do to help that, that’s what we want to do,” he said, including working with “everybody who’s living, playing and working downtown, trying to be there for them when they’re reporting crimes that are happening.”

“That’s going to take all hands on deck. It was an awful two years and we’re just coming out of it. There’s lots of frustration out there, but we can make this better.”

The Bear Clan’s Walker lauded the work the Downtown Community Safety Partnership is doing, but noted safety issues extend beyond the area the partnership covers.

“It’s a problem that’s happening throughout the city. We have problems throughout the North End, the West End, [and] central,” he said.

A greater presence of patrols and services would help in those areas, too, Walker said, referring back to the incident at the 7-Eleven on Salter Street.

“By offering food and water — some of the basic needs that some people do not have, or have the resources for — I think that’s a way we can prevent some of these things from happening,” he said.

“We like to be that bridge … between them and getting lost in the system.”

The Bear Clan Patrol has a food distribution network that feeds 600 to 700 people daily, Walker said.

“If we can manage and continue to do that, I think that’s going to take some of the burden off of what’s going on in the city.”

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