Main Street Project honours 50 years of service in Winnipeg and prepares for another busy night at the shelter

All 120 shelter beds at Winnipeg’s Main Street Project will be full on Saturday — and every day this week — as the non-profit honours 50 years of supporting the city’s homeless population.

The non-profit opened their new overnight facility at 637 Main Street, in the old Mitchell Fabrics building, in December 2020. It’s 17 times bigger than their previous location on Martha Street.

“We’ve never had a day where we weren’t at capacity,” executive director Jamil Mahmood said.

The shelter doesn’t turn anyone away in the winter if it’s below -20 C. If the beds are full, people can stay warm in the lobby, or staff will try to arrange a bed at another shelter. 

Mahmood said what Main Street Project is doing now is the same as it was five decades ago: outreach in the community and meeting people where they’re at.

“Capacity and resources have changed over time, but we’re still sticking true to those roots of being a low barrier, frontline organization,” he said.

At their Thunderbird House location on the corner of Main and Higgins, the organization hosted a 50th anniversary open house for past and current staff, the public and the community they serve.

Newspaper clippings and photographs from the last half-century are displayed along the walls of Thunderbird.

Winnipeg’s third street census suggests there are currently thousands experiencing homelessness in the city.

It’s an issue that has been top of mind for Winnipeggers like Marnie Feeleus. 

Hot food was served at an open house at Main Street Project’s Thunderbird House location on Saturday to honour the non-profits 50 years of outreach work. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

She attended the open house to learn more about what Main Street Project is doing and what support she might be able to provide.

“Everybody is, you know, one tragedy away from being [homeless] ourselves,” she said.

Feeleus owns Fresh Option Organic Delivery and is passionate about reducing food waste.

She’s hoping to support Main Street Project by supplying produce from her business that would otherwise go to waste.

Mahmood says Main Street Project is doing the right work, but they can’t help everybody. He’d like to see more proactive measures like harm reduction services that can reach people before they end up homeless.

“We’re kind of the last line for a lot of folks before they end up on the street, or the first line coming back off the street,” he explained.

Along the walls of Thunderbird House, the 50-year history of Main Street Project is depicted in photographs and newspaper clippings. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Earlier this week, Winnipeg police charged Jeremy Skibicki with three additional counts of first degree murder. The 35-year-old man has been in custody at Milner Ridge since May, when he was arrested and charged with the killing of Rebecca Contois.

Some family members of the four women allegedly killed by Skibicki say their loved ones were homeless when they died.

“Folks who are in poverty, or vulnerable, or on the streets are more likely to experience violence and crime than anyone else and they get way less supports from the safety structure like police,” Mahmood said.

He wants to see more community based supports that are not police, like the SABE Peace Walkers, who are in the midst of a pilot project providing outreach and non-violent intervention in Osborne Village. 

The unarmed foot patrol operates with the same approach as Main Street Project: they meet people where they’re at and give them what they need.

“Those are things that like would cost a fraction of the cost of policing and yet would provide so much more safety and security and provide that really important cultural and relational lens that you don’t get with police.”

Ultimately, Mahmood says, the solution to homelessness is an obvious one—it just takes political will.

“The only solution to homelessness is housing. We have to do more to create more housing, create more transitional support … and wrap around supports, so when [people] get into housing, they can stay housed.”

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