A death at a Higgins Avenue homeless camp has advocates echoing calls for more permanent housing in Winnipeg.
Fire crews arrived on scene at the encampment around 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning to find a temporary structure engulfed in flames and one person dead. Firefighters believe the fire was fuelled by aerosol cans that ignited and exploded. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and police responded to the scene, in a fenced-off lot near 66 Higgins Ave., and were still investigating the cause of the fire. No other details have been released, including the identity of the deceased.
About half a dozen people were still coming and going from the camp in recent days, said Harrison Powder, who stopped by the camp after the fire, fearing the deceased person might be one of his friends. He had no answers when he spoke to the Free Press Tuesday afternoon, but as an anti-poverty advocate and someone who was once homeless himself, Powder said someone shouldn't have to die for organizations and individuals to take action.
"This loss is tragic. Losing someone from the homeless community, like this is our worst fear right now. All the Indigenous activists and anti-poverty advocates I know, all these people from Winnipeg who have been volunteering and donating and everyone's trying to help people through this cold snap, I think we're all trying to do it to avoid death. We don't want anyone to freeze... we don't want people to die in fires either."
"There's more that can be done to address homelessness. I mean, we seem to band together and want to help out when there's a cold snap or something, but there's got to be more done than that. We need more permanent housing." — Harrison Powder
One of the smaller encampments in the area, the camp was formed after people were displaced from homeless camps on the grounds of the Manitoba Metis Federation on Henry Avenue in the summer, Powder said. When he visited the Higgins Avenue location about a week ago, there were only a couple of tents set up and between four to six people coming and going, he said, explaining the camp shrunk recently as more people moved to other temporary shelters farther down Higgins and closer to the river.
"Displacing the homeless solves nothing," Powder said.
"There's more that can be done to address homelessness. I mean, we seem to band together and want to help out when there's a cold snap or something, but there's got to be more done than that. We need more permanent housing."
Kris Clemens, a spokesperson for End Homelessness Winnipeg, said the organization is again calling for more access to low-barrier permanent housing for people who need it. Advocates have been working with outreach teams and the fire paramedic service to spread information about fire safety, COVID-19 precautions and protections from the bitter cold, Clemens said, but information isn't enough.
"There's multiple overlapping crises," Clemens said.
"All of this safety education and information isn't enough if we don't have housing appropriate to people's needs. This is what's leaving some numbers of people outside, unsheltered, choosing between a range of options, none of which are permanent housing. And out of those options, some people will choose the outdoors, despite the risks that we know are there and that people are actively working to mitigate against, but until we are able to fulfill the right to housing for people, we're just constantly trying to avert tragedies like what happened today."
The Main Street Project's outreach patrols were working closely with people staying at the camp and others nearby. In a statement Tuesday, the Main Street Project said van patrols will continue, but didn't release other details.
"Our thoughts are with those who will be directly impacted through this loss, and we will continue to rally around with and for community," the statement said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.