A year-long examination of Main Street homelessness

"The streets are no longer what they use to be. Very few people still maintain the old school mentality. The women are scared, the children are dying, and the boys are laughing. It used to feel like a sense of home because for some reason you never really felt comfortable in your "other" home, for each and everyone’s own personal reasons." ‐ Desirae

 

The car pulls to a stop at 8:26 a.m.

Ted Martens swings open the door and steps into a windswept winter morning. His balance isn’t what it used to be, so he walks gingerly across the icy parking lot, doing his best to stay upright as he heads for the front doors of the grocery store.

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.

See the full series at wfp.to/lifeonthestrip

Despite the cold, Martens, 69, is in good spirits — as he seemingly always is. He’s had some health troubles of late, and his hearing isn’t so good anymore, but he’s still got his driver’s licence, so he reminds himself to count his blessings.

He needs his driver’s licence. Without it, he wouldn’t be able to get to this grocery store twice a week to pick up donations for the homeless.

The sun is nowhere to be seen and the city looks murky and drab. The mechanical doors part and Martens walks inside. There’s a fringe of white hair framing his scalp, and his eyes are hidden behind the fog on the lenses of his square glasses.

He pauses for a moment, removing his gloves, then waves to an employee as he disappears into a back room. A few minutes later, he returns, pushing a cart loaded with donations toward the coffee shop at the front corner of the store.

Ted Martens gathers food in the early morning at a local grocery store for volunteers to feed and support about 100 people at the Love Lives Here drop-in.

Ted Martens gathers food in the early morning at a local grocery store for volunteers to feed and support about 100 people at the Love Lives Here drop-in.

Martens is a man of routine, and so, twice a week, after picking up the supplies, he sits down for a cup of coffee. There are no other customers in the shop as he takes a seat at a small table. His voice is calm and pleasant as he speaks.

"If I wouldn’t serve it to guests at my house, I’m not going to serve it to my brothers and sisters down at the trailer," he says, taking his first sip.

Alongside his wife, Heather Barefoot, and a handful of other volunteers, Martens runs the Love Lives Here mission, which ministers to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the homeless on the Main Street strip.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, in a small trailer parked near the Salvation Army, right beside the main homeless encampments, the Love Lives Here team serves a free supper to those with empty bellies and nowhere to go.

"These people know what hell is." – Ted Martens

It doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold, or raining or snowing. It doesn’t matter how tired they may be from a long day’s work, or how busy their personal lives are. Twice a week, every week, the homeless know the volunteers of Love Lives Here will be there.

"Life on the streets is pretty rough. These people are all my brothers and sisters and I have to do my part to help them," Martens explains, when asked what motivates him to put in so many hours at the mission when he could be enjoying retirement.

"These people know what hell is. It’s a hard life they lead, but if they get a bit of care and attention and love, they can make it out of a desperate situation."

As he sips his coffee, Martens wonders aloud about what having a home truly means. He questions whether a distinction should be drawn between having a roof over your head and having a home, saying he thinks being homeless is about more than just not having a place to call your own.

Family history

Click to Expand

The 2018 Winnipeg Street Census observed intergenerational patterns of homelessness. Among 43 people who said having children taken away by Child and Family Services was the cause of either their first or current homeless experience, 23 (53.5 per cent) said they, too, had been in foster care, group homes or other CFS placements.

One thing he’s learned during his years with Love Lives Here is that if you’re not employed and are living on the streets, surviving becomes your job. And for those who find themselves in that situation, the work week isn’t 40 or 50 hours long — it’s non-stop, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

That’s why he and his wife, alongside their fellow volunteers at the mission, try to ease the burden of the homeless anyway they can, and — if possible — lead people to the Christian faith in the process.

"Our mission is in God’s hands. There are people where we have breakthroughs, and we can lead them to the Lord or help them in some way. But sometimes it’s just about showing people compassion," Martens says.

"Sometimes, you’ll have someone who’s an alcoholic, or he has trouble with his mental health, and if you just show him some compassion, your conversation with him might be enough to help him through the day."

Martens rises with the deliberateness of an old man and drops his cup in the garbage. He pushes the cart through the store and out into the parking lot, where he loads the boxes of donations into the trunk and back seat of his car, before getting in and pulling onto the road.

Twenty minutes later, he pulls to a stop again, this time outside the Love Lives Here trailer. He unlocks the door, then doubles back to his car to get the donations. He carries the boxes inside two at a time, the snow crunching beneath his boots with each step.

Martens washes the floor in preparation for feeding the homeless at the drop-in.

Martens washes the floor in preparation for feeding the homeless at the drop-in.

"I’m just showing off here. Normally, I only carry one box at a time," he cracks, stepping into the cold and drafty trailer. In order to save on Hydro costs, Love Lives Here keeps the heat turned off until shortly before the homeless arrive for supper.

The florescent lights lining the centre of the roof flicker to life as he hits the switch. Wooden chairs, 45 in total, line the long and narrow trailer. There’s a small kitchen at the back, large enough for a handful of people to squeeze into, where they prepare the meals.

Out front, there’s a counter where they serve the food. Hanging on the wall behind it is a crucified Christ, nearby a framed photograph of Catfish — the nickname of a homeless man who became close with the volunteers before he died.

A sign on the trailer wall.

A sign on the trailer wall.

At the back of the trailer, there are two closets — one closed, the other open, and inside a stack of boxes piled haphazardly high, as if they may come tumbling down any second. There’s a small amplifier on the floor, a mic stand and an old boombox.

On the wall a sign reads: "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear but of power and of love and a sound mind."

Martens doesn’t stay long. He unpacks the donations and does a bit of prep work for tonight’s meal, before locking the door on his way out. He gets back in his car, turns the key and listens as the engine rumbles to life, then drives home.


The sun has come and gone from the sky.

Martens is no longer alone. He prepares the coffee and hot chocolate at the front counter, measuring cups of water and dumping them into large Thermos containers. As he refills the sugar canisters, he explains they would open the trailer every night if they could.

There is always a need for help along the Main Street strip.

There is always a need for help along the Main Street strip.

It’s not that there’s a lack of need on the Main Street strip — there isn’t. It’s that Love Lives Here doesn’t have the donations, let alone the volunteers, to pull it off. As it currently stands, they buy the meat they serve themselves.

A long table has been set up in the centre of the room, where two volunteers prepare sandwiches. They slather Miracle Whip onto the bread, cut shavings of cheese and stack slices of roast beef.

It’s an assembly line that rivals a professional sandwich shop. In total, 30 loaves of bread are used to prepare tonight’s offerings. In the kitchen, Martens’ wife heats the soup, while another volunteer lines a serving tray with cookies and dainties, muffins and pastries.

"This soup is amazing. Everyone come get a taste," Barefoot says with a laugh, leaning over the large pot with a ladle.

The team works diligently for the next half-hour, making sure everything is ready to go, before stepping out and splitting into two vehicles for the short drive over to the Union Gospel Mission on Princess Street.

A volunteer prepares food for the 100 people they will serve at the drop-in

A volunteer prepares food for the 100 people they will serve at the drop-in

After parking on the side of the road, they walk into the warmth of the building, stopping quick to chat with a staff member at the entrance, before heading down to the basement, where they have a small room booked. They sit in a circle and pass out hymnals.

One of the volunteers, Wendall, leads the group in an opening prayer, asking God to help them make an impact at the trailer tonight. Afterwards, he picks up a guitar and begins strumming an old religious tune, and one of the women grabs a tambourine and shakes along with the rhythm.

"Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?" the group sings. "Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?"

Barefoot closes her eyes, bobbing her head to the music, and raises her hand in the air as she sings. The woman sitting next to her claps along, while another woman taps the side of her leg in tune with the beat.

Volunteers head to Union Mission to pray and to ask God to help them make an impact at the trailer tonight.

Volunteers head to Union Mission to pray and to ask God to help them make an impact at the trailer tonight.

As Wendall strums the final notes, shouts of "Glory to God!" and "Praise the Lord!" pierce the air. In between songs, they read passages from the Bible, or relate stories about their time down on the Main Street strip.

They talk about everlasting salvation and the cleansing blood of Christ. They talk about the lessons to be drawn from the story of Moses and the need to submit to God’s will. They stress that our past failures do not mean the Lord can no longer work through us.

They describe a dualistic world, made of light and darkness, and say they’re doing the Lord’s work, while the devil is driving people to lives of drink and drugs and despair. "Amen" and "Hallelujah" and "Praise Jesus" punctuate the speeches.

They sing another song, and a woman pulls out an egg shaker, rocking her fist back and forth, and raising her other hand high in the air. Another woman puts her arm around her, and they sway with the strumming of the guitar.

When the song ends, it’s Barefoot’s turn to speak, and the room takes on the energy of a Pentecostal church on Sunday.

Between songs, the group reads passages from the Bible or relate stories about their time on the Main Street strip.

Between songs, the group reads passages from the Bible or relate stories about their time on the Main Street strip.

"This is our city, folks. We have been called by God for such a time as this. We are a chosen people. We are chosen by God. Each one of us here tonight has been handpicked by God. That’s what I love about God, he uses the least of the least," Barefoot says, her voice building to a crescendo.

"Lord, we are your army in this city. We are few but we are mighty. And we are ready for battle. We want to see the joy of the Holy Spirit moving in the people tonight, Lord! These people on the streets, they can smell a phoney. If we work the word, it will work."

There’s a final song, followed by a final prayer, to close out the service. They pray for a successful supper. They pray for the other missions in the city doing good work. They pray for Catfish and talk about how much they miss him.

And then they get up to leave, depositing the hymnals on the table on their way out the door, as they wind back up the stairs and head out into the cold, dark night.


An ambulance screams down Main Street with sirens blaring.

Outside the trailer, a man sits in the snow, smoking a cigarette and drinking a plastic bottle of beer. In between puffs, he coughs, then mumbles to himself as a lineup begins to form at the door.

People begin to gather at the Love Lives Here mission.

People begin to gather at the Love Lives Here mission.

"Are we allowed to get seconds?" asks a man, to no one in particular, while waiting his turn.

Inside, the trailer is warm, and the service just getting underway. Martens stands off to the side, talking to a man and asking about his hernia and his plans for the upcoming operation. He asks whether the man has a place to store his belongings while he’s in hospital.

Chatter fills the trailer and old gospel music rings out from the boombox. The lineup for food seems never ending, snaking from the front counter, through the room, and out the back door toward the camps.

Martens (left) brings a coffee to a person in line.

Martens (left) brings a coffee to a person in line.

Barefoot grabs a tambourine and walks around greeting people, tapping the instrument on her hip with the song. Another person stomps their foot on the floor to the beat as they sing along with the music.

A woman enters, approaches Martens and throws her arms around him.

"This is my Papa," the woman says, posing for a photo with him. "Oh, I love you Papa."

"I’m her trailer Dad," Martens says, smiling.

The energy is palpable, pulsing through the room, as one by one the people come in for sandwiches and soup, muffins and cookies, coffee and hot chocolate. Martens walks down the line shaking hands, greeting people, telling them how good it is to see their faces.

Heather Barefoot listens to anyone who wants to speak with her.

Heather Barefoot listens to anyone who wants to speak with her.

Some of the faces are weathered, with deep wrinkles that speak to hard living, while others are pallid and gaunt. Some of the faces are missing teeth, or have no teeth at all, while others are pocked with tattoos and scars. Some of the faces are smiling, while others seem despondent and distressed.

A young man in a large, oversized coat spills his soup on the floor before even taking a spoonful. Within seconds, Martens appears, saying, "Don’t worry about that, we’ll get it." Barefoot wipes up the mess with paper towels and Martens gets the mop.

The volunteers joke with the people they serve food to. Everyone is offered a sandwich, bowl of soup, dessert and hot beverage. Some people eat right away, while others shove the sandwiches into their pockets for later.

Eyan, who spent a day in February at a temp job removing asbestos-laden plaster from a downtown hotel reno, enjoys a sandwich and coffee.

Eyan, who spent a day in February at a temp job removing asbestos-laden plaster from a downtown hotel reno, enjoys a sandwich and coffee.

A man named Harry sits in a chair, eating a bowl of soup with a smile on his face. He says that despite the fact he’s homeless, he has a PhD. When asked what he studied, he says, "A PhD: a panhandling degree," and his laughter booms across the room.

"Heather, I sent out 20 job applications today," says a young man, as Barefoot passes by.

His name is Michael, and when asked for his story, he says struggles with mental illness led to his homelessness, but now he’s on medication and doing better. He has a place in transitional housing and is looking for work.

He asks if Barefoot will pray with him. She places her palm on his forehead and he closes his eyes. She leads him in prayer, and as the words fall from her lips, he says, "Amen" over and over. As she walks away, he whispers, "Thank you, Heather."

"If you have a light on, people will come." – Ted Martens

The service goes on for hours, as it does every week, and each time the lineup for food seems to be shrinking, in walk more people. That’s because the homeless down on the Main Street strip know Love Lives Here by reputation. They know every Tuesday and Thursday, week in, week out, they’ll be there, opening their doors and opening their hearts.

"We’re always here. We’re not going anywhere," Barefoot says, standing in the kitchen as the night draws to a close.

Standing next to his wife, Martens nods in agreement, before adding a final note that seems to sum it all up:

"If you have a light on, people will come."

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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