This month marks exactly one year since Sscope (Self-Starting Creative Opportunities for People in Employment), the non-profit organization that offers jobs and support for people experiencing homelessness and mental-health issues, moved into the Neechi Commons building at Main Street and Euclid Avenue in Winnipeg’s North Point Douglas neighbourhood.
The building’s former tenant, Neechi Food Co-op, was forced to vacate when it was unable to pay its primary creditor, Assiniboine Credit Union, nearly $4 million it owed.
North End residents Louise Champagne and Russ Rothney had high hopes when they converted two century-old buildings into the 50,000-square-foot grocery store, restaurant and artist co-operative in 2013, but had to close in 2018, citing mounting financial losses and a need to shift their business model.
Neechi’s departure essentially created a "food desert" — an urban area where fresh, affordable food is unavailable, impacting health and livelihood — in one of Winnipeg’s poorest areas.
According to researchers at the Winnipeg Food Atlas, North Point Douglas is one of the worst "food deserts" in the city, where illnesses such as diabetes and increasing poverty can be attributed to a lack of access to healthy and low-cost food.
Since leaving, Rothney and Champagne have not given up hope for a return.
They continue to hold meetings, as late as last month, offering a plan for a "multi-stakeholder co-operative" that, Rothney explained in an email, would "consist of community groups, tenants, other supporters and a staff collective" and share ownership.
It’s an exciting, grassroots-based initiative but would need another long-term financial commitment, so it’s optimistic at best.
Still, Rothney and Champagne won’t give up, even forging agreements with prospective tenants.
They now are asking for support letters from local businesses and organizations to ask ACU to give them another chance.
It’s an odd tug-of-war by two community groups that will be decided upon by bankers and city officials over the next three months.
Sscope entered into a one-year lease in July 2020 after ACU had essentially given up waiting for a solution from Rothney and Champagne. The organization signed a one-year lease with the hope it would come up with a plan to purchase the building for $3.1 million.
After trying to raise funds to buy the building, Sscope’s lease expired July 31. Now, the organization’s last hope is the City of Winnipeg’s Rapid Housing initiative, which Sscope executive director Angela McCaughan says will enable the organization to stay.
"We have a lease extension to Oct. 31 and we know we are shortlisted," McCaughan told me. "We call this place home now and we’re hoping this is the answer."
Sscope’s plan is to radically renovate the building, creating independent-living units on the second floor alongside a reworked kitchen, which now serves more than 300 meals a day to nearly 60 long-term residents.
The first floor offers a thrift store, computers, resources, employment opportunities, and access to elders and cultural programming to residents — more than 80 per cent of whom are Indigenous.
The organization also has expansion plans for the parking lot involving family-living units and a child-care centre, and would hire residents to do much of the work.
By offering space and support to some of Winnipeg’s most disenfranchised, Sscope is clearly filling a gap governments are not addressing.
There is a question, though, whether some in the neighbourhood want them there.
Sscope has a complicated history. A big reason they left their previous location in the North End (on Arlington Street) was due to a dispute with their landlord after noise complaints and conflicts between neighbourhood residents and their residents.
McCaughan acknowledged the issues but added the organization wanted to expand its employment and mental-health programming and Neechi Commons provided that opportunity.
While Sscope may have moved, those issues have followed them.
On Wednesday afternoon, I walked around North Point Douglas, asking business owners and citizens what they thought of the new occupants of Neechi Commons.
An overwhelming number said they had negative interactions with tenants there and have noticed a rise in crime and substance use.
One pointed out that people had moved tents into the parking lot and there had been a lot of fights.
Another told me women don’t feel safe walking by the building in the evening.
All wanted to speak "off the record," for fear of reprisal — a message onto itself.
But there were positive stories, too. Many said they were happy people could find jobs, resources and food there. I wrote a column about some of them six months ago.
When asked, McCaughan reminded me Sscope is "not the ones selling beer in the neighbourhood."
"We are the ones offering a solution, even trying to avoid getting police involved when there’s conflict with our residents," she said. "We give people a safe place."
In the end though, this tug of war will be decided by someone without a hand on the rope, and that may be the problem in the first place.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.