The First Unitarian Universalist Church in Winnipeg is trying to acquaint its congregation with the life experience of Winnipeg’s homeless population. Recently, at a social sharing event, several speakers who have experienced homelessness did exactly that.

The event was a chance for members of the church and the community to hear about the lived experiences of people experiencing homelessness. Debby Lake, who is on the steering committee that organized the event, said the church has been doing a food drive to help for more than 25 years. “We know that’s just a small drop in the bucket for what needs to happen to make sure that people get help,” she said.

Joe Hatch, who has previously experienced homelessness, was one of the speakers. “As far as being out on the street itself, this is no place for a human being,” Hatch said. “There is so much deprivation and you have no human rights. All I could do is walk because … if you sit too long in one place, you can be charged with loitering,” Hatch said. “If you sleep in a park, that’s not legal, even during the day, you can’t sleep in a park.”

Several speakers at the event were part of a study on homelessness, called At Home/Chez Soi, which was done by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and carried out in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton. It was based on the idea that people need housing as a first step in addressing other issues related to homelessness.

Al Wiebe and Ernest Merasty, two advocates for people experiencing homelessness, also spoke about their experiences in the national study. Merasty said he never thought he’d find a home. “I thought this was the end of the line for me,” he said. “That was a miracle for me, because it got me off the street, but it didn’t change my behaviour immediately, I struggled for several years.” Merasty said childhood trauma and his experience at residential school led him to problems with alcohol and eventually homelessness. After turning his life around, Merasty got involved in a study on trauma-informed care at the University of Manitoba, to train doctors on how to treat patients with a history of trauma.

Organizer Debby Lake said the church plans to hold another event like this one, closer to the provincial election this fall. “We need to make sure that this issue is front and center for folks who do have the power to build housing, for folks who do have the power to improve our mental health services,” she said.

“These are social and community problems, and there’s not a simple fix, but we need to start prioritizing and making sure that money is there for things that do work.”

Siloam Mission has posted this story for the information and education of our supporters, staff and volunteers. Highlighting important stories that offer solutions to help tackle the challenges of ending chronic homelessness is an important part of our core mission. This story was originally reported by CBC Manitoba.