A conglomerate led by the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and End Homelessness Winnipeg has quietly planned a revamp of the Thunderbird House site, giving hope to one of the city’s most struggling neighbourhoods.

For years, the area around Thunderbird House, at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street, has been struggling, with the COVID-19 pandemic making things worse.

A conglomerate led by the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and End Homelessness Winnipeg has quietly planned a revamp of the Thunderbird House site, giving hope to one of the city’s most struggling neighbourhoods.

For years, the area around Thunderbird House, at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street, has been struggling, with the COVID-19 pandemic making things worse.

One evening in June, the Mama Bear Clan patrol picked up 300 used needles at the site. At the time, three large, tented areas with dozens of residents had popped up — leading the Manitoba Metis Federation to ask city officials to remove them (which happened June 10).

The inside of Thunderbird house has been turned into a COVID-19 testing site.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The inside of Thunderbird house has been turned into a COVID-19 testing site.

In the months since, people have broken into the Thunderbird House sweat lodge and are sleeping in it for warmth.

The building’s traditional fire has been turned into a 24-hour safe space. Its inside has been turned into a COVID-19 testing site (contracted until August 2021), and all programming and services have ceased.

While government officials have tried for decades to solve the site's challenges, the situation is now critical. The pandemic has been the tipping point, making the ongoing poverty, homelessness, and mental health crisis undeniable and all-encompassing.

This is not the way it was supposed to be.

The permanent public washroom will be located on the southwest corner of the Thunderbird House site on Main Street

BRIDGMANCOLLABORATIVE ARCHITECTURE RENDERINGS

The permanent public washroom will be located on the southwest corner of the Thunderbird House site on Main Street

Twenty years ago, Thunderbird House opened its doors, offering a safe, cultural and empowering space for Winnipeg’s North End. Designed by Anishinaabe architect Douglas Cardinal and lobbied for by Mary Richard and the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, it became a place for Indigenous people to heal, network, and escape gangs, addictions and sex work.

Places to go

Some of the most vulnerable Winnipeggers now have more “places to go” in and around downtown.

Three of seven temporary public washrooms have now been set up at 473 Selkirk Ave., 26 Osborne St. and 345 Portage Ave, as part of a plan to ensure those who are homeless can access proper bathrooms.

Another three additional temporary bathrooms will be set up at 75 Martha St., along with one at 222 Furby St. “in the coming days,” according to a City of Winnipeg news release.

The city will devote $670,000 of Federation of Canadian Municipalities funding to provide public washrooms, which includes $50,000 for the temporary stalls and $620,000 for a permanent public washroom the city will build somewhere downtown in 2021.

Some of the most vulnerable Winnipeggers now have more “places to go” in and around downtown.

Three of seven temporary public washrooms have now been set up at 473 Selkirk Ave., 26 Osborne St. and 345 Portage Ave, as part of a plan to ensure those who are homeless can access proper bathrooms.

The centre’s descent — alongside the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre and Neechi Commons — has been well-documented: a result of the overwhelming challenges in the area, lack of political will and resources, and rotation of overworked, front-line volunteers fighting a strong but uphill battle to save as many as they can.

Hope has emerged this month.

"With some help, we may be able to get back to, and even achieve, Mary Richard’s original vision," Thunderbird House co-chairman Damon Johnston said in an interview.

The revamp includes two parts.

The first is a permanent public washroom. Funded through the City of Winnipeg’s "Places to Go" downtown public restroom strategy, the structure will be built in the new year. It is expected to cost $600,000, while providing much-needed support for Winnipeg’s most marginalized.

The Village next to Thunderbird House is part of a revamp planned for the area.

CIBINEL ARCHITECTS

The Village next to Thunderbird House is part of a revamp planned for the area.

It will be located on the southwest corner of the Thunderbird House site on Main Street, and feature garage-style doors that, when open, are visible from the street, with private stalls in the back. There is an office for staff and security and a shower available for use.

"A public bathroom is a lifeline for people in the area, but it’s the one thing that’s been limited the most during this pandemic," Johnston said. "It’s an essential service, not just needed for this pandemic, but for life."

Second is what Johnston called "a whole new approach to ending homelessness": a mixed-use residential area in the southeast corner of the Thunderbird House site.

It features 16 bachelor rooms in renovated storage containers, including two accessible rooms.

Each room has a private entrance off a main meeting space, which contains a fire pit. Each room features a seating room, bathroom, kitchen and single bed.

Connected to all the units is a "lodge," with a community hall for ceremonies and meetings, an office for staff, a community kitchen, an elder’s/medicine room, laundry, storage, and an examination room for medical purposes.

The bathroom will feature garage-style doors that, when open, are visible from the street, with private stalls in the back.

BRIDGMANCOLLABORATIVE ARCHITECTURE RENDERINGS

The bathroom will feature garage-style doors that, when open, are visible from the street, with private stalls in the back.

Outside, there will be an area to lock up bikes, store belongings, and a teepee. Trees and a garden will adorn the area and paths connect it to the Thunderbird House sweat lodge, the Main Street Project and Salvation Army.

"We call it the Village because it encompasses our community’s physical, mental and emotional needs — our spirit," Johnston said.

Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata has agreed to help lead programming at the site and lease the area from Thunderbird House.

Now what’s needed is political will and resources to support a project expected to cost millions of dollars.

Area city Coun. Vivian Santos (Point Douglas) said she has offered a letter of support.

"A public bathroom is a lifeline for people in the area, but it’s the one thing that’s been limited the most during this pandemic," Thunderbird House co-chairman Damon Johnston said.

BRIDGMANCOLLABORATIVE ARCHITECTURE RENDERINGS

"A public bathroom is a lifeline for people in the area, but it’s the one thing that’s been limited the most during this pandemic," Thunderbird House co-chairman Damon Johnston said.

"This is one incredible step in many needed to address the challenges of this area," Santos said. "It’s an innovative and creative community-driven solution."

Potential sources for funding, according to Johnston, may be in federal COVID-19 relief or those earmarked for infrastructure post-pandemic.

"I don’t care where we get it, this city needs to address housing, mental health, and save lives now," he said.

In the darkest days of the worst crisis in the city’s history, a Village — a vision seeking reality — could become the greatest gift of this holiday.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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