Desirae has a pair of lungs on her.

A year-long examination of Main Street homelessness

"Dealing with sexual abuse that started from the tiny age of three, my sense of wanting to believe in good people and having faith in others has always been a personal war that I still continue to fight with every day. Monsters were real before wishes. I had the mentality that if I pushed people away long enough that no one could hurt me. I was the commander of my own world and anyone who tried to disturb my slumber was in my way and needed to move" ‐ Desirae

Desirae has a pair of lungs on her.

"Don’t stare at the zoo animals!" she screams, as people walk down Henry Avenue, past the encampment, just off the Main Street strip, where she lives. 

The world around her is chaos.

Life on the strip

The costs of homelessness — both in fiscal resources and human misery — are difficult to fathom. And the problem, which has has plagued Winnipeg for decades, is growing.

In order to better understand the issue, the Free Press spent the past year documenting life on the streets and in the shelters.

The costs of homelessness — both in fiscal resources and human misery — are difficult to fathom. And the problem, which has has plagued Winnipeg for decades, is growing.

In order to better understand the issue, the Free Press spent the past year documenting life on the streets and in the shelters, interviewing advocates, community activists and academics, reviewing research papers, shadowing social-service workers and consulting people with expertise gained through lived experience.

The result is Life on the Strip: A year-long examination of Main Street homelessness.

At the start of each instalment is a quote from Desirae, one of the people profiled in this series. She lives on the streets of Winnipeg in a tent. The quotes are excerpted from an essay she wrote and submitted to the Free Press.

This is chapter five of nine. It looks at life in a homeless camp during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

See the full series at wfp.to/lifeonthestrip 

There are more tents and makeshift shelters at the camp than ever before, and Desirae has recently moved hers off to the edge. A chop shop has been set up, and the frames and wheels of disassembled bicycles are littered everywhere, mixed in with discarded shopping carts.  

Trash and used syringes — some capped, some not — scatter the ground. A busted knife blade sits in the grass with blood on it. The sun beats down on the camp residents, and there’s a light breeze in the air.

Desirae holds a bowl of chili in one hand. She asks if anyone wants some, warning it’s the spiciest chili she’s ever eaten. Around the corner, 30 or so people line up outside the Lighthouse Mission, awaiting their serving. Almost none of them wear masks.

A blood stained blade is found amongst the tents in the Henry Avenue camp in downtown Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A blood stained blade is found amongst the tents in the Henry Avenue camp in downtown Winnipeg.

There is no longer a ring on the third finger of her left hand.

"Look at my castle. I just built it," she says, motioning to her tent.

She puts down the food on a nearby table, and soon, she’s on the move, wandering through the camp chatting with other residents. In the distance, a man is screaming about the late rapper 2Pac.

The camp — located just off the Main Street strip near the Salvation Army — has only grown since the city moved in to dismantle it. It’s the biggest it’s been since Desirae has called it home, which is something she’s proud of. She considers it a street family for those with nowhere else to turn.

"All of this makes me so happy. It’s big and that’s exciting," she says, walking through the camp.

"It’s being recognized as a self-deciding life alternative. We’re no different than anyone else. We’ve just got it a little harder…. Trust me, we take care of anyone who needs help out here. There’s nothing wrong with our world."

A resident of the Henry Avenue camp, Twilla, sits beside their tent in downtown Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A resident of the Henry Avenue camp, Twilla, sits beside their tent in downtown Winnipeg.

With only one shoe on, Desirae is slowly on the move, heading for the nearby Mount Royal Hotel. It’s a hot day, sweat is seeping from her pores underneath a black hoodie, and she wants a beer to cool down.

She pauses under the building’s vintage sign, saying something surprising: she’d trade the heat for winter’s chill in a heartbeat.

"I miss winter. I do. I miss winter so f--king much. The summer comes with its challenges, for real. It sucks. I miss the snow-covered ground and when you were too frozen to move, so you just didn’t," she says.

Inside the hotel’s vendor, Desirae asks for a beer, but the worker behind the counter tells her that without a shoe on both feet, he can’t serve her — no shirt, no shoes, no service. But she manages to charm him with some banter and leaves with a tall boy in hand.

Outside, she lights a cigarette before wandering down Higgins Avenue as vehicles pass by.

"Me and Kyle are just non-existent now," she says, explaining how they got into a fight and called off their engagement. She hasn’t seen him in two weeks and doesn’t know where he is.

“I think we both knew how to keep each other alive in an extreme environment. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, we don’t even want to look at each other anymore, because if we did, we would.” ‐ Desirae

"I still have not laid eyes on this boy or spoken words to this human since. We’ve broken up. I get the picture…. He’s doing his thing. It’s just none of my business anymore," Desirae says, without a hint of sentimentality.

While she doesn’t know where Kyle is staying, she says other people have seen him and let her know he’s all right. She knows he’s sleeping in a tent somewhere; she thinks he may have set up down by the river where there’s more privacy.

On top of the breakup, one of Kyle’s cousins recently died, which makes her think he needs some time alone.

"I think we both knew how to keep each other alive in an extreme environment. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, we don’t even want to look at each other anymore,because if we did, we would," Desirae says, rounding the corner and continuing down Maple Street.

She walks toward the newly opened Main Street Project shelter just off the Disraeli Freeway, which stands in stark contrast to the agency’s old digs at 75 Martha St. Outside, a dozen or so people linger near the front doors — some standing, others laying in the grass.

Desirae walks past Main Street Project in downtown Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Desirae walks past Main Street Project in downtown Winnipeg.

There is shattered glass on the ground, and before she can be warned, Desirae steps through it. Remarkably, she doesn’t hurt herself, despite the fact one of her feet is shoeless. She stops and points to a man struggling to push a shopping cart down the sidewalk that’s overflowing with items.

"That shit right there, that makes me happy. That right there is strength. That is work. People look at that and see a dumpster diver? I see tired. I see someone going flat-out. That shit is exhausting. Day after day after day after day," she says.

"We have no problem walking around looking like we just got out of the garbage because, probably, we just did…. You’ve got to learn how not to give a f--k, because you just don’t have the time."

Unsheltered, unwell

Click to Expand

Half of the homeless population shows signs of mental illness, and they are 40 times more likely to kill themselves than the average Canadian.

For homeless youth, the figures are worse: 85 per cent show symptoms of mental illness.

All of a sudden, something in Desirae breaks. It’s like an on-off switch, as if a dam within her has just cracked. Her voice begins to quiver and shake. Tears form in the corners of her brown eyes.

"When I do sober up, when I do get through this, I’m not going to remember anything. I can’t even get to the end of every day now with my bag. My bag of stuff that I hustled all day for. I get caught up in people, in society, in rules, in judgments," she says.

She stops and looks at her feet — one clad in a black sneaker, the other bare. She looks back up, staring at nothing in particular.

"When I do sober up, when I do get through this, I’m not going to remember anything."–Desirae

"Like where is my shoe? Where the f--k is my shoe?" she says, as if the missing shoe is a stand-in for everything that’s gone wrong in her life, as if this is the one defeat that will finally push her over the edge.

She turns at Henry Avenue and walks back toward the camp. When asked if she’s upset over the breakup with Kyle, Desirae downplays what she’s going through.

"I’m still looking for my f--king shoe. I ain’t worried about no boy," she says, throwing her head back in laughter.

Her movements betray her words. Circling the camp multiple times, she points to people in the distance — walking down the road or waiting to board a bus — who she mistakes for Kyle.

Each time she hopes it is.

Each time it isn’t.

But then the switch goes off again, and she’s no longer crying. The sadness has been washed away. Her spirits seem high, as if she doesn’t have a care in the world, as if she can handle whatever life has to throw at her. When she next speaks, her voice carries a lilt.

She spies a woman coming down the sidewalk who she knows from the Main Street strip.

"How you doing mama? You look great," Desirae says, blowing her a kiss as she passes.

Desirae walks amongst the tents in the Austin Street camp in downtown Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Desirae walks amongst the tents in the Austin Street camp in downtown Winnipeg.

Back at her tent, she points across the street to the old Main Street Project building. Outside, lined up against the wall, are three porta-potties. For the longest time, there was nowhere for residents of the camp to go to the bathroom at night.

For the men, it was often just an inconvenience, but for the women, it was a problem. Over and over again, Desirae asked for porta-potties to be set up. At one point, because he was tired of hearing her complain about it, Kyle constructed a makeshift one.

"That was a good day when we got those. I was so happy," Desirae says.

"It felt like I had actually accomplished something, as an addict, that I set as a goal… it’s so basic. You don’t even think about it until you don’t have it."

There’s a wooden utility pole near her tent and someone has stuck a knife into it. It juts out at 90 degrees, just hanging there. No one seems to notice. No one seems to care.

A few people are playing catch with a football, throwing it back and forth across the camp. One of them calls out to Desirae, before chucking the ball in her direction. She throws it back, a perfect spiral arcing into his arms.

"You adapt because, ultimately, you have no choice." –Desirae

A coronavirus testing site for the homeless was recently opened at Thunderbird House, but Desirae says she hasn’t been tested yet and has no plans to be in the future. She’s not worried about the pandemic. She’s worried about surviving. She’s worried about the bare necessities.

As the afternoon fades into evening, and the temperature begins to cool, a police cruiser pulls into the old Main Street Project parking lot to drop someone off at the drunk tank, and Desirae settles back in at the camp.

"You adapt because, ultimately, you have no choice. Nobody opens their doors. It puts you in a place in life that’s dark because you’re cold, tired, hungry, withdrawing, sore, emotionally distraught, stressed, paranoid and, then, alone. You have no idea how hard that shit gets," she says.

"But then you remember that you’re stronger than this…. It’s astonishment almost. I’m still alive."

"What is wrong with my world? To me, this is straight happiness, this gives my heart joy." ‐ Desirae

She turns and looks around the camp — the tents and makeshift shelters, the trash and rubbish, the items scattered on the ground, the people playing catch, the people wandering through, the people with nowhere else to go — and smiles.

"We choose to live here because it’s home. No f--king system, no f--king police agency, will make us conform to nothing…

"What is wrong with my world? To me, this is straight happiness, this gives my heart joy," Desirae says, surveying the scene.

"And let’s face it boys, your guys’ trash built our castles. And you know what? That’s some shit that a lot of us are f--king proud of."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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John Woods
Photojournalist

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