Warren Catcheway has a room at the Fort Garry Hotel for at least the next couple of nights.
Where he goes after that remains unclear.
The 53-year-old recently lost his home in Portage la Prairie, where he had lived for the last three years, after someone reported him for distributing harm-reduction supplies like naloxone kits to drug users in the neighbourhood, he said.
“I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t,” said Catcheway, who is staying in a room at the downtown Winnipeg hotel, where the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network is holding a conference that started Tuesday and runs until Thursday.
“I had a home in the area and then it can be gone, just like that. For being a helper.”
Catcheway is originally from Skownan First Nation, about 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.
The Manitoba Harm Reduction Network invited him to attend the conference and sponsored his room at the hotel.
After the conference ends, he could end up on the streets as part of a disproportionate number of Indigenous people who are living unsheltered.
“My only concern most of the time is, ‘Where am I gonna sleep tonight?'” Catcheway said.
Systemic racism, stigma
This past May, the Winnipeg Street Census counted over 1,200 people in the city without homes over a 24-hour period, surveying people in shelters and transitional housing sites, and at bottle depots and community agencies. Volunteers also walked over 100 kilometres of city streets, and the survey also used data collected through the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System.
The census found a disproportionately high number of Indigenous people living unsheltered — while non-Indigenous people were overrepresented among those who stayed in shelters.
According to the report, nearly nine out of 10 people who spent the night in an encampment or some other outdoor location identified as Indigenous.
Meanwhile, roughly half of those who spent the previous night in a shelter identified as non-Indigenous, even though that group makes up up less than one-third of the number of people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s really important that we have that kind of information and that shelters ask themselves what … the barriers [are] for Indigenous people accessing their services,” said Josh Brandon, a community animator with the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and the author of the street census report.
N’Dinawemak, the city’s only Indigenous-operated homeless shelter, is not part of the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System, although it was included as a survey site, which could have skewed the data, said Brandon.
The barriers to shelter use among Indigenous people follow a pattern seen in other areas, such as drug treatment and rehabilitation centres, and underline the importance of harm reduction services, said Dr. Marcia Anderson, a First Nations public health physician and a keynote speaker at the conference.
“There’s a parallel when it comes to the shelter sector for people who have experienced a lot of systemic racism and stigma,” said Anderson.
“There can be a significant disconnect, fear, a functional avoidance of mainstream services, because of harms that they have experienced in those services in the past.”
‘I really need my own place’
Some shelters and treatment programs require people to maintain sobriety in order to access services. Other services might be rooted in a religious tradition that has caused harm through residential schools, Anderson said.
Siloam Mission, one of Winnipeg’s biggest shelters, was criticized last year after former staff alleged it didn’t provide support for Indigenous spiritual cultural practices. The criticism led to the resignation of Siloam’s chief executive officer and board chair, and the mission later announced it had hired a director of Indigenous relations.
CBC News requested an interview with Siloam for this story, but no one was made available before deadline.
Shelters and addictions services must focus on “those who are furthest behind first,” Anderson said.
It’s vital “that we think most carefully around who is currently experiencing a disproportionate burden of the harms, and really prioritize meeting their needs,” she said.
Catcheway doesn’t know where he will go once his time at the hotel runs out. There are no shelters in Portage la Prairie, he said. A shelter that had operated in the city closed its doors last fall.
“Am I gonna be sleeping under a bridge? I gotta find somewhere warm. It’s getting cold out there, you know?” said Catcheway.
“I really need my own place. I need some help getting that.”