Off the Mats

This piece was written as a cover feature for The Uniter, the University of Winnipeg student paper and published on Feb. 16, 2017.
The topic was sparked by my ongoing interest in the lives of Winnipeg’s homeless and often invisible population. I initially hoped to interview folks panhandling on the street, but luckily Main Street Project was able to connect me with a handful of clients and staff who were willing to answer my questions about poverty, mental health and addictions. This piece is shared with permission.

Off the Mats
Homelessness and addiction, and the resources that help

In Winnipeg, like most cities, homelessness is an invisible world that runs parallel to one populated by folks who don’t have to worry about poverty.

Panhandlers hold up signs and ask for bus fare, but besides the quick interactions Winnipeggers have with their impoverished counterparts, the thought of homelessness is out of sight, out of mind. The Winnipeg Street Census 2015, released in the fall of that year, momentarily shed some light on how many people deal with homelessness.

But what is that experience really like?

For Arthur Szymkow, it’s been a long two decades of struggling with mental health issues that have kept him unemployed and in and out of housing. 

Today, Szymkow lives at Mainstay, a transitional residence and one of Main Street Project’s (MSP) many services. He’s frustrated that despite an extensive resume, at 63, he is encouraged to take part in work placements that have never resulted in stable employment.

“I used to conduct $20 million worth of business in the electrical industry,” Szymkow says. “If you want to keep people occupied, because there are no jobs, what’s the best thing to do? Give them a training program.

“I asked one director … ‘How many people do you go through a month?’ He said 1,200. How many end up with employment? About 30. How many keep that employment after three months? About five.

“It’s not effective at all.”

Szymkow was assigned to several mental health workers after his mental state deteriorated. But like many others in his position – unexpectedly homeless or reliant on social services – he was hit with barrier after barrier.

“It’s called horizontal. There’s no change. I’m still in transition,” Szymkow says. “I can be transitioned a little up or a little down. What’s my next step? What, in 35 years, has happened to me? Nothing … The people who are supposed to be gate openers, seven times out of 10, are gate closers.”

Nelson Gzebowski didn’t expect to find himself on the streets, either. Gzebowski lives at the Bell Hotel, another arm of MSP’s housing programs. He lived in North Kildonan for 27 years and spent 30 years working for a company that went out of business.

“After I used up all my savings, which didn’t turn out to be as much as I thought it was, I ended up on the street, and then at the (Salvation Army) Booth Centre,” Gzebowski says. “I would rather be on the street than go back to a rooming house.”

Now, he lives in housing that allows its residents to use drugs and alcohol onsite while they deal with addiction, but he’s never felt more secure or at home.

MSP’s volunteer and community engagement coordinator Carla Chornoby says Winnipeg would greatly benefit from more housing that allowed intoxicated folks to stay. It’s a system that works, and one that tackles the sticky issue of homelessness and addiction.

“The Bell is one of the best concepts,” Chornoby says. “If we had more of those, we wouldn’t have a homeless population.”

Housing first

“Ultimately we’d like them to (be sober), but the reality is that some may never stop,” Chornoby says. “We need housing 24 hours a day, that’s not just for mental health … but what if they have mental health and addiction? And there’s none for addiction.”

Homelessness and addiction are often associated with each other, and the statistics back it up. Patti Nixon, manager for the detox and stabilization centre at MSP, says that out of all the clients they see for addiction issues, half of them report absolute homelessness.

“There’s the stress of being homeless, more anxiety, fear, depression, which can lead to substance abuse,” Nixon says.

And because issues of addiction and trauma are often passed down through families and throughout communities, environments become a key factor in why someone with addiction will likely stay addicted.

Andy Meekis, 46, is known as a leader and friend throughout his community. Meekis lives at Mainstay, and although he’s been to treatment programs, he continues to struggle with alcoholism.

“I’ve been homeless most of my life,” he says. “I couldn’t stay at my dad’s, and I couldn’t stay at my mom’s.”

He says his friends struggle with addiction too, which has made it difficult for him to maintain a sober lifestyle.

“I have friends who have passed away from addiction,” he says. “I’m always there for them. I try to tell them, quit it, but they can’t … they call me a leader. They call me a boss. But I’m not the boss.”

Meekis spent two months at the Peguis Al-Care Treatment Centre, but it wasn’t long enough.

“When I got out, I had money and I tried to quit,” he says. “But I was walking around and everybody is drinking. I just quit for two days and got out and couldn’t handle it. They were my friends.”

Chornoby says that it goes even further than friends and community for some of their clients, and that removing someone from their network can have damaging effects as well.

“If you move someone outside the community, they’re lonely. They start that whole thing again,” she says. “They’ve had trauma. The Indigenous community, we’ve had that long history of trauma, some have started sniffing at four years old. What they need is people to care about them.”

With that in mind, MSP works under a housing-first philosophy.

MSP director of transitional and supportive housing Adrienne Dudek says that while some facilities operate under an abstinence philosophy, both models are important and necessary to support vulnerable people.

“By allowing people to use, it’s a harm-reduction model,” she says. “For different people, it’s different paths … but with us, we’re low-barrier, so quite often, people who are not able to access services other places can still access them here.”

She says they also work with other organizations and try to refer folks to where they need to go. When she first got into her line of work, Dudek says that one thing surprised her above all – anyone can have issues with addiction, but it’s the homeless that are most stigmatized for it.

Burdened with blame

Gzebowski says that he’s seen it many times – homeless folks are asked, why not just get a job? Why not just stop drinking or using drugs? It should be easy enough, right?

“Yeah, but are you willing to hire that person or take that person as a tenant in an apartment, with all the baggage they have? Straight off the street?”

He says that won’t solve any problems.

“If there was some way to take a first-time homeless person and get them straight into housing and a job within months, that’d be great. But once they’re homeless and once they can’t find a job or a place to live, the longer it takes, the more of a trap it is.”

It’s a systemic issue, Dudek says, and until it’s resolved at the core nothing will change.

“Until we fix things systematically, and provincially and federally, we’re not going to see change at our level. Homelessness is not going to go away.”

A housing-first philosophy is the best frontline strategy, according to Dudek. But where governments allocate money and which programs they support also impacts homelessness on a larger scale.

Hearing Szymkow and Gzebowski’s stories, it’s no wonder that the options that do exist don’t appeal to many people. Rooming houses run by landlords who have little interest in maintaining a property are not a safe or healthy place to live, they say. And when given the option, many choose to stay on the street.

“They’ll say, ‘No, I’m good where I am. I feel safer sleeping with my friend under the cardboard here and being safe rather than being on the mats (sleeping in shelters) and being in a cot,’ so there are a lot of people who, pride-wise, maybe don’t know what’s out there,” Dudek says.

Accessing resources for addiction can be challenging too, and although the government is beginning to treat drug use as a health problem, homeless folks are still met with blame more often than not.

“You’ll have a different demographic of people who are housed and make a lot of money and drink a bottle of wine every night, and that’s not seen as an issue,” Dudek says. “But someone lives down here on the street and drinks a bottle of wine a night, and the whole perception of their life is so entirely different … Addiction does not discriminate.

“People think that people who experience homelessness are lazy, but they are survivalists. I challenge anyone to walk in somebody’s shoes, who has no place to go all night when it’s Winnipeg and it’s -45.”

It’s an uphill battle, but MSP staff say it’s the little things that keep them going – it’s seeing their clients make it up off the mats.

To donate, volunteer, or learn more about MSP, visit mainstreetproject.ca.

Safe spaces needed everywhere

This piece was written for The Metro.
The story is a follow up to the West End 24/7 Safe Space opening. This project came to fruition incredibly fast, thanks to the support of the community who felt that at risk youth needed somewhere to stay at night. About a month after the program began, I decided to visit them and take a look at how things are run and just many youth they see. The story I wrote likely prompted other news outlets to do the same, as similar pieces soon appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press and CBC Manitoba. This piece is shared with permission.

Safe spaces are needed everywhere

It’s been just over a month since the West End 24/7 Safe Space opened, and one thing is clear to those working there: this is something the community has needed for a long time.

While the centre plans to be open weekends only during the school year, it is currently open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and will be until September. Safe Space co-ordinator Lin Howes said they didn’t have much time to prepare for the summer before jumping in with both feet.

“Every community needs a 24-hour safe space, and not just for youth as a blanket term, but we need that for women, children and families,” Howes said. “We need places for people to go if for some reason or another, even on a one-off night, people don’t feel safe… Winnipeg as a whole is really widely spread and so it’s really critical that those places are easily accessible and walking distance for people… we do not have enough of those services right now.”

Howes said while many of the youth that access the centre are from the immediate area, plenty more are coming in from other neighbourhoods. Between 11 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., Safe Space drivers will pick up youth who call the centre saying they need to be there for the night, as well as drop off anyone who’s been hanging out at the centre but has a safe place to sleep.

“A lot of our youth, they’re displaced in that maybe this was their home community and for some reason, they’re living in a different one now,” Howes said. “We have kids who asking for rides all over the place to try to get to a safe location and there’s no limit to where people will go to seek safety.”

On average, between 15 and 20 kids will stay at the centre all night, while up to another 20 or 30 more will come in and out to hang out, eat and relax. Howes said they see plenty of youth who have safe spaces to stay, but like to hang out in the evening as it’s a good place to practise sobriety.

“In that 1 to 2 a.m. window we also recognize that rest and a quiet space is really valuable, especially to the youth who are accessing the space who are homeless,” Howes said. After that, things quiet down and drivers come in for the night.

Howes said the centre is an effective immediate fix for a lot of youth, but that they hope to extend their services and not only support youth for the night, but get to the bottom of whatever issue they’re having, whether it be housing, addiction or legal challenges.

“We know this is a band aid solution to a lot of systemic issues that are going on and we’re hoping that by having the kids all in one place and meeting the actual people who the issues are affecting, we’ll have a better understanding of what to work towards and how to solve these problems.”

To that end, the Spence Neighbourhood Association is actively seeking volunteers for the centre. Howes said anyone who is willing to cook, clean, drive or just hang out with the youth is welcome. Those with a background in health, law or social work are greatly needed. As well, the centre will accept donations of cash, feminine hygiene products, clean socks and hotel-size shampoos and toiletries.

“This community is passionate and they badly want to take care of their young people,” Howes said. “I feel so grateful that this is even happening.”


Lez be honest

This comun was written for The Uniter.
When the opportunity came up to write something personal, I jumped at it as there was a topic I hadn’t been able to talk about much – coming out as a lesbian. The column appeared three times in The Uniter and this is the first piece, and what I feel is the most significant. Later pieces talk about gay characters in TV and movies and the topic of hiding my identity from certain people in my life. This piece is shared with permission.

Lez be honest
Coming out doesn’t fix everything

It’s true what people say: you never stop coming out.

That is especially true if you’re a femme-presenting lesbian. I don’t have the haircut, and I only own one plaid shirt. I’m still on my first pair of Doc Martens. 

I have had to come out many times and am doing that again, right here. For all the gravity that seems to be associated with Coming Out, I still don’t really get how I’m supposed to feel about it. Relieved? Nervous? Nauseous? 

It probably depends on the reaction of the receiver of the Coming Out. Almost always, there’s some surprise, but most people are polite enough to hide it. Sometimes, I’m met with disapproval, which is still always surprising. I guess sexuality is one of the few things that strangers can acceptably have an opinion about.

One of the most confusing parts about realizing I’m not interested in guys is just how long I spent thinking I was straight. I had that message reflected back at me every time I looked in the mirror and saw someone girly and when my friends gave me knowing looks about that new guy I was hanging out with. 

Doing what didn’t feel right was a way of meeting expectations, and I thought that when I came out, I would disappoint a lot of people. I was also so in love with the guys that came into my life that I didn’t recognize that the love wasn’t romantic. 

I saw my gay guy friends come out in high school at parties full of friends and proceed to get happy-drunk while spilling their guts, letting loose a secret that had been weighing on them so heavily for so many years, so I expected that when I came out, I’d feel that instant relief. I’d suddenly understand everything, all my tics and anxieties. And for a long time, I tried to make that idea fit. 

It turns out that being gay doesn’t exempt you from regular worries and misunderstandings. All the things I had to deal with before – depression, anxiety, insecurity, confusion – are still a part of my life and will be as I continue to figure out who I am. It sounds a little obvious, but it took me a while to realize I’m more than A Lesbian, and that being part of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t the only thing that I’m part of. 

Everybody has secrets and parts of their personalities that they hide – secret compartments in their lives that might be too painful or complicated to explain. You don’t have to be in the closet to feel like you’re not quite being sincere or true to yourself. It’s just a human thing. 

Most of us are trying to find ourselves and where we fit on the spectrum of everything from careers to having kids to sobriety to politics, all things that are probably going to be influenced by the expectations of family and friends. 

I expected my sexual orientation to set me apart. Instead, it made me realize how much I have in common with everyone else who’s got it about half figured out and is faking the other parts. By the way, faking it ‘til you make it does not work with liking guys or anyone that you don’t like of your own volition (lesson learned). 

Coming out isn’t a problem solver or even a weight off, especially knowing I’m going to have to do it at all of my new jobs and to friends I haven’t seen in a few years and to the guy aggressively staring me down at The Good Will. 

But it is honest, and that feels pretty good.

Find more of my stories at …

The Metro

The Uniter


The Manitoban