By The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Nearly $700,000 was spent repairing vandalism to Winnipeg bus shelters over 15 months as city and community leaders urge more support for an unhoused population that has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data obtained by The Canadian Press through freedom-of-information requests shows that from June 1, 2021, to Aug. 31, 2022, the estimated damage to bus shelters was $699,000.
About $6,256 in damage-related work orders was due to snowplows or other claims from Manitoba Public Insurance and the rest was from vandalism.
There has been an unusually high rate of bus shelter vandalism this year, said Megan Benedictson, a communications officer with Winnipeg Transit. However, she said the city does not connect the vandalism with the issue of housing insecurity.
“We do not know who is responsible for vandalism to bus shelters, and bus shelters are not designed for housing,” Benedictson said in an email.
But the city did say the number of reports of people sleeping in bus shelters more than doubled between 2019 and 2021.
City council shelved a motion to dismantle some bus shelters earlier this year and a new motion asked the city to explore options for low-barrier transitional housing spaces.
A woman was found in critical condition in a bus shelter earlier this month.
Sherri Rollins, councillor for the Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry ward, said there is clearly a need for harm reduction services, including a supervised drug consumption site, housing and health supports.
A transit shelter should never be a replacement for a home and health services, Rollins said. And the costs of providing those supports are clearly worth it, she said, adding there needs to be financial backing from the provincial government.
“We are going to pay for it either way,” Rollins said in an interview.
The city said costs for damage so far in 2022 are estimated at $425,325. In a typical year it’s $150,000. There are about 885 bus shelters and more than 40 per cent — 371 — have needed repair this year.
The number of people sleeping in bus shelters increased significantly with the pandemic.The city says there were 2,188 reports of people in bus shelters in 2019. That jumped to 3,852 in 2020 and 4,761 in 2021.
The number appears to have decreased this year, with 2,202 reports of people in bus shelters as of Oct. 31.
It has caused significant concern among the community and city officials, as well as Indigenous leaders.
Then-acting chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Cornell McLean voiced concern in June in an email to former mayor Brian Bowman obtained under freedom-of-information law.
“As you are aware, First Nations citizens in Winnipeg experience homelessness at a disproportionately higher rate compared to non-First Nations,” the chief wrote.
Winnipeg’s Chief Administrative Officer Michael Jack said in a January 2021 email to the former mayor and city councillors that the city is trying to find short- and long-term solutions, including efforts to bring the provincial and federal governments to the table to help.
“Whether the location is a transit shelter or a riverbank, the dynamics surrounding why some of our residents end up there are similar, and similarly complex.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2022.
— By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon