Devoted, persistent activist keeps close eye on health and safety issues, spends hours calling 311 to get them addressed in electoral ward that accounts for 36 per cent of city’s ‘neighbourhood livability’ complaints
Darrell Warren’s tour of the William Whyte neighbourhood focuses on its sore points:
That’s where a fire ripped through three houses and up a tree; over there, a backyard trash pile got so high it spilled over the fence; people keep breaking into that boarded-up house.
Warren is keenly aware of the details because he has made it his personal mission to address them. The lifelong North Ender and president of the William Whyte Neighbourhood Association is fighting to make his community a safer, more livable place.
A big part of that involves addressing persistent health and safety hazards, such as trash piles that give rise to fire risks, vacant buildings and never-ending illegal dumping.
His weapon to combat these ills is an often weak one, but with persistence and teamwork, it gets the job done.
Warren calls 311. A lot.
In fact, a Free Press analysis of 2 1/2 years of city data shows the Mynarski council ward — which includes William Whyte and other parts of the North End, along with half of West Kildonan — has more than double the number of 311 complaints compared to any other ward, including triple the number of "neighbourhood livability" complaints.
Warren is responsible for a few hundred of those calls. Per year.
"I’m constantly calling," he tells the Free Press, adding that he recruits others, too. "I try to encourage other people to report because the more people who report, the faster it seems to get done."
“I’m constantly calling... I try to encourage other people to report because the more people who report, the faster it seems to get done.” – Darrell Warren
Warren and his crew’s calls fall under the 311 neighbourhood livability complaint category that covers basic property maintenance, noise control, open-air burning and garbage. Residents in Mynarski were responsible for nearly 8,300 of the 15-ward total of 22,900 neighbourhood livability complaints made from January 2020 to April 2022, the Free Press analysis shows.
Warren says he’s had some success prodding the city via 311, but it takes a while to get through (he’s waited up to three hours on the phone, his reporting method of choice since he’s not an "online guy") and sometimes up to 20 days to get city crews out to address the issues.
"In 20 days, a building could be torched and gone," he says.
The city has acknowledged its 311 system struggles to meet demand, largely due to a staff shortage. The workers’ union says 311 staff are the City of Winnipeg’s lowest-paid and that better wages would attract and retain desperately needed staff. The 311 demand is not abating — more than 100,000 complaints poured in over the last 2 1/2 years.
On a sunny May afternoon when the Free Press visits William Whyte, Warren points out a problem backyard that often has trash piled close to the home — a fire hazard. Warren says he’s called 311 multiple times about that address. It seems his persistence has finally paid off. Someone has moved the giant garbage pile into the back lane to — hopefully — be taken away.
But in the meantime, some of the garbage has blown into a park across the street. Dirty diapers sit on the boulevard and soggy pieces of paper, plastic bottles and cigarette packages dot the playground.
Of course, trash buildup isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a community. But Warren wants his neighbours to feel they can take pride in where they live. Part of that means refusing to let people treat it like a dumping ground.
At least twice a year, the neighbourhood association takes matters into its own hands. Up to 100 volunteers participate in spring and fall community cleanups, filling dumpsters with a shocking volume of detritus.
"We pick up bulky items like couches, mattresses," Warren says. "Anything people might set fire to."
It can feel like an exercise in futility.
"We go down those same streets a day or two later, and it’s like we haven’t even been there," he says. "It’s very frustrating."
Mynarski city councillor Ross Eadie empathizes.
He recalls once checking out the William Whyte area when a car pulled up. The door opened, and out came bags of trash. The driver sped off.
"It’s so insurmountable… we can’t get on top of it," Eadie says.
“It’s (trash) so insurmountable… we can’t get on top of it.” – Ross Eadie
But the issues of vacant buildings, slumlords, derelict housing, trash and illegal dumping predate Eadie’s 12 years at city hall.
They are symptoms of deep-rooted social challenges.
"There are people dealing with serious social issues like addictions… with mental-health issues and hoarding," he says.
Those residents have found affordable places to live in neighbourhoods such as William Whyte, but keeping on top of trash disposal might not be among their priorities.
"Mynarski will always be highest (for 311 complaints) until we come up with systemic changes to deal with these problems," he says.
Still, Eadie worries about the immediate safety risks to area residents — everything from improperly discarded needles to the ballooning piles of trash.
"I don’t want my neighbourhood to burn," he says.
“I don’t want my neighbourhood to burn.” – Ross Eadie
Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service assistant chief Scott Wilkinson says anything flammable piled up against a building is a fire hazard. But the trash doesn’t light itself on fire; the garbage blazes fire crews respond to are often "suspicious in nature," though it’s often difficult to determine who is responsible, he says.
Regardless of how garbage got there, "the property owner continues to be responsible for removal," the city says. Still, if residents are able to move the items to where trash is picked up, the city will handle it free of charge.
City spokesperson Kalen Qually notes the city does "arson sweeps" from May to September, when they collect "all bulky items and as much loose debris in the lanes as possible." The solid-waste division also works with the William Whyte Neighbourhood Association to plan sweeps around the community cleanup.
Warren is grateful for the city’s help. He just wishes he didn’t have to spend hours calling 311 to get anything done.
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