Greg Burnett can log a small victory as he looks out over the small park at the Air Canada Centre.
His staff at the Downtown Community Safety Partnership (DCSP) have found places to live for some occupants of a tent in the park and it’s calm the morning he speaks to CBC News.
The square on Portage Avenue has hosted a kaleidoscope of challenges brought on by crises of homelessness, addiction and mental health issues downtown.
Drugs are bought and sold in the park. There are fights. Paramedic and police responses are frequent.
It is also the current address of the DCSP, and its staff are cautioned not to enter or exit the office in groups smaller than pairs.
The DCSP has now grown to 24 people working in three teams, with patrols in the downtown around the clock, seven days a week.
WATCH | Winnipeg patrol making connections step by step:
Burnett was a superintendent with the Winnipeg Police Service when he retired. He knows the streets from that view and now looks at them through a different lens.
Convincing people to come out of the tents or off the street takes time, he says.
“Number one is let’s talk and let’s be patient and let us work with these folks and get them into better places; the right places at the right time,” Burnett said.
Talking to each other
Burnett is diplomatic and cautious with his words as he speaks about how various outreach agencies talk to each other.
“I think it could be better. I think the communication is getting better. It is being worked on and I see positive results coming from that,” Burnett said.
“That is the only way we’re going to get out of this, and every level of government as well.”
Many local organizations to help people with a variety of challenges.
Main Street Project, Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, Salvation Army, Siloam Mission, 1JustCity, Resource Assistance for Youth, Inc, Street Connections, Ndinawe, West Broadway Community Organization, West End 24 Hour Safe Space and many other community-based groups are actively involved with people at various stages of crisis.
Burnett chooses his words carefully, but believes there needs to be a more co-ordinated effort to know what’s happening on the streets in real time in terms of shelter space, where street patrols are and what each organization is doing.
“Real time? I use the phrase ‘intelligence is required’ for sure. I think there needs to be an effort to bring that all together, for sure. I’m going to be careful of what that looks like … there are different groups and organizations working at that. But it does have to be brought together,” Burnett said.
Where Burnett is careful with his comments, Marion Willis, who runs St. Boniface Street Links, isn’t so cautious.
Willis says there is simply not enough communication between outreach organizations and government departments, and government departments between each other.
“You’re all still in the silo, and if you don’t get out of the silo and invite all these other departments and players to the table, you know, we’ve just wasted everybody’s time,” Willis told CBC News.
Shelters needs more space
Burnett confesses not to know what the daily capacity numbers are at each shelter, but he knows they’ve been at or close to capacity many times.
In the planning phases of the DSCP there was a model for a new shelter for the downtown area with wraparound services.
“I want to be careful; I don’t know the numbers in the shelter spaces and that my instincts are — what I’m hearing is —we’re at full capacity or getting close to that. So the fear is, what happens when when we don’t have those? ” Burnett said.
Burnett says there are conversations about a new shelter says and he “hopes it gets discussed more.” .
WATCH | Front-line teams on the street in Winnipeg’s core:
Burnett winds up the interview with a return to his mantra of patience. Patience, he says is necessary to get past the stigmas of mental health and addictions, but it isn’t easy.
Decriminalizing some of the behaviour of people of “who are going through stuff that, you know, most of us can’t even imagine.”
“The hard part of patience is keeping a good attitude,” he says.
In the balance is the lives of those Winnipeggers and the future of the city’s downtown, Burnett believes.
“Everyone wants downtown to thrive. We want this to get better.”