Canada’s Encampment Crisis: Episode 2 of The Deep Dive

As housing inequality rises across the country, many Winnipeg residents have been left without a place to call home

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The music for this episode is a licensed version of “This Podcast Theme” by InPlus Music. Additional music are licensed versions of “Stay Cool” by Loops Lab, and “Podcast Intro” by InPlus Music.

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TRANSCRIPT:

SHEENA ROSSITER: Welcome to The Deep Dive from The Walrus, a weekly podcast that takes a deeper look in everything we’re working on virtually and in our offices. I’m Sheena Rossiter. On this week’s episode:

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: We see the province having to funnel the money that’s available for public housing, into repairs and upgrades to housing stock that’s deteriorated over the course of several decades, and not really having existing funds to continue to build new housing that can meet the growing need.

SHEENA ROSSITER: We’ll hear from The Justice Fund Writer-in-Residence, Julia-Simone Rutgers. She’s a writer, journalist, essayist, and sometimes poet. She’s written daily news for the Winnipeg Free Press and the Star Metro Halifax, and her work has also appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Coast, and the Discourse.

Julia-Simone Rutgers is the first writer-in-residence at The Walrus. And over the next several months, she’ll be invent housing issues in Winnipeg and how it’s part of the housing crisis that Canada faces as a whole.

But before we take a deep dive into what Julia-Simone Rutgers is working on for The Walrus, we want to do a quick check in with the team at The Walrus Lab about the 2022 Amazon Canada First Novel Award, because the deadline is quickly approaching. And to tell us more about that, we’re joined by Alana Hamilton, the project manager for The Walrus Lab.

Hi there.

ALANA HAMILTON: Hello!

SHEENA ROSSITER: So it is that time of year again. After the holidays always comes awards nominations season! Now, I’m sure many people in the Canadian writing community know about the Amazon Canada First Novel award, but, for those not in the know, can you tell us about it?

ALANA HAMILTON: I’d love to. So The First Novel Award began in 1976, and it has been co-presented by Amazon Canada and The Walrus since 2014. And the goal of the award is to really recognize outstanding work by first time Canadian novelists and ultimately to help launch writer’s career.

SHEENA ROSSITER: And a pretty sought after award, right? Like when I’ve gone book shopping, I’ve seen The Amazon First Novel Award logo emblazoned on the covers of books that were shortlisted.

ALANA HAMILTON: Yeah. Some of Canada’s most beloved authors are past winners of the award, including Michael Ondaatje, W.P Kinsella, and Mona Awad. Last year’s winner was Michelle Good for her novel of Five Little Indians, which is currently being made into a limited TV series. So we’re very excited to see that. And the winner of this year’s first novel award will receive $60,000 and the five finalists will each receive $6,000.

SHEENA ROSSITER: And it’s not just the First Novel Award deadline that’s coming up. Tell us about the award for teen writers.

ALANA HAMILTON: Yeah, this is the fifth year of the youth short story category. So authors between the ages of 13 and 17 are invited to submit a short story. Under 3000 words, and six finalists will be chosen and the winner will receive $5,000 and a mentorship lunch with the editors of The Walrus. And the submission deadline for both categories is January 31st at 5:00 PM Eastern time. And all the details can be found on thewalrus.ca

SHEENA ROSSITER: Thanks, Alana.

ALANA HAMILTON: Thanks for having me.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Get those submissions in and we’ll hear back from Alana when the shortlist is announced. All right. Now here’s my conversation with The Justice Fund Writer-in-Residence, Julia-Simone Rutgers, about her investigation into housing issues in Winnipeg.

INTERVIEW:

SHEENA ROSSITER: Hi, Julia-Simone. Welcome to The Deep Dive.

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: Hi Sheena. Thanks for having me.

SHEENA ROSSITER: So tell us a little bit more about the story that you’re working on?

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: The story that I’m trying to put together right now is a deeper look, an investigative look into the housing crisis in Winnipeg specifically right now. The main question that I think I’m trying to answer is why do people choose to live in encampments? A lot of folks, I believe choose to live in encampments as the safest housing option available to them. And I’m really hoping to understand why that is, what other options there should be and why those aren’t working and aren’t available for them right now.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Housing is a major issue in Canada right now. As we mentioned, Canada, as a whole is facing a housing crisis with white hot markets like Toronto and Vancouver experiencing sky high housing prices. But what made you want to focus on housing in particular in Winnipeg?

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: As you said, yeah, housing is an issue that is facing all Canadians. It’s an issue that has become increasingly important. And to me represents sort of a nexus of justice issues. As climate gets more intense, people having a safe place to sleep becomes more and more important. I’ve seen from a sort of personal lens, housing crisis is in other province, says I’m thinking specifically of Halifax here and Toronto as well, turn into major policing issues where people have been arrested, tear gassed and generally treated quite brutally by police in conversations and, and protests related to housing, specifically. For me, it was a combination of watching situations unfold across the country over the last year that put housing, especially encampments in the spotlight and a sort of personal investment in Winnipeg because I’ve been working here as a daily reporter for the last couple of years.

And over the course of my work, I’ve covered a couple of encampments that have been taken down. I’ve covered a couple of sort of general housing issues. And, I started to realize, We are not in Winnipeg at that point of sort of white hot crisis, just yet both from, you know, a market price perspective and on the encampment side of things. But there are a lot of very vulnerable people in Winnipeg who are experiencing housing insecurity. And I wanted to sort of get at the root of the problem here in Winnipeg and in Manitoba, or it escalates to some of the situations that we’ve witnessed across the country in the past year.

SHEENA ROSSITER: When we look at the housing crisis as a whole, which communities are particularly vulnerable?

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: In Canada, overwhelmingly its racialized communities, particularly indigenous communities. Here in Winnipeg, in particular, 66% of the people experiencing homelessness are indigenous. So we obviously get into issues of colonization there. And then on a broader scale, you’ve got young people, a lot of people’s first encounter with homelessness happens between the ages of 18 and 20. You’ve got vulnerable people with mental health issues, physical disabilities, sort of a wide range of marginalized identities that can make people specifically vulnerable to housing insecurity. Here in Winnipeg specifically, it’s actually overwhelmingly men. 71% approximately of our current homeless population is men. We see that skew, it’s largely adults about half adults, but we also see a large portion of older adults. So 50 and older and of youth and particularly concerning, there are some unaccompanied children and minors who are experiencing homelessness. So it does affect a wide swath of the population, but particularly those who are vulnerable for a variety of the reasons.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Why in particular, are you finding that it’s more men who are impacted by this?

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: That’s something that I’m not sure if I have all of the answers to so far. The research would suggest that it would go the other way, because a lot of people that are impacted by and rental prices are, you know, women led homes, but I’m not a hundred percent sure, honestly, of the answer to that yet. That’s something that I would love to get into more in the research.

SHEENA ROSSITER: As you’ve been going out and researching this. And as you continue to take a deeper dive into housing in Winnipeg, you’ve speaking to a lot of people. Can you tell me about some of the people you’ve been speaking to so far?

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: So on one hand, I’ve been speaking to some experts, some people who have experience with policy side of the housing issue, that’s something that is going to play a major role in this investigation is, you know, how the policies have created the conditions that we see today. But from a little bit more of an on the ground side, I’ve been speaking to a now friend of mine, Robert Russell, I was mentioning earlier, you know, I, I covered some encampments coming down in the past couple of years. I met Robert this summer. He and, and several other people were being evicted from a very long standing encampment in one of Winnipeg’s more vulnerable and low income neighbourhoods. This encampment had been there for over a year growing and changing over time. And the fire department was coming in to officially say, you know, this is the end and everybody needs to clear out.

So I met Robert at that encampment. He is incredibly outspoken about the policy issues and the housing issues facing himself. And a lot of other vulnerable Winnipegs. He’s lived in cities across the country. And so he has a little bit of a, a national perspective on what housing looks like, but he’s from here in Winnipeg. And in the kind of intervening time between that encampment, nd when I spoke to him last week, he found some private rental housing and just had a very difficult experience living in a place that was not very well maintained. It’s a little dramatic, there was a big fire at that apartment. And he ended up living, you know, without heat, without power, without water for quite some time. And so we caught up on the phone last week to chat about his experiences and what he had to say about housing options in Winnipeg.

ROBERT RUSSELL: The key issues, uh, how somebody or any person who owns housing, building or a house, and he’s renting it out, doesn’t have to really follow any kind of rule. There’s nobody who really checks on this person. Nobody who sure that the place is up to code. I mean, it’s basically a fee for all.

SHEENA ROSSITER: It certainly sounds like it’s a very complex situation. What have you found out so far?

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: As Robert mentions in that clip, there is a lack of affordable housing in Manitoba. And I know that this is an issue that faces cities across Canada. And I think what I’m starting to understand is it really does come down to a lack of available housing stock. Canada has long focused on making sure that its housing stock is available for home buyers, not necessarily for renters, and certainly not necessarily for people who are in need of affordable housing. So when we talk about affordable housing, the sort of standard metric for is rent geared to income. So we’re looking at rents that take up no more than 30% of any given family or household’s income. And that’s becoming increasingly difficult to find, not only here in Winnipeg, but across the country. Historically in Canada and in Manitoba, we have not focused on making housing units available for people who need affordable housing, who need rent gear to income housing. In the private rental market, a lot of the rent gear to income or lower income available options are not very well maintained. So here’s Robert, uh, speaking to that issue that he’s experienced in his journey to find good housing.

ROBERT RUSSELL: Like when you’re desperate and you’re trying to get off the road, often you homeless, you’re looking for anything. You’re sick and tired of staying at like Siloam Mission or all these shelters. You’re sick and tired of it. Like you’re just done and you trying to find a place and whatever comes up. It’s like, I don’t care. I just want to get up. I wanna be able to put my head down somewhere and know that this is my spot and is perfect for these slum lords.

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: So while the housing stock issue is something that faces Canada as a whole in Manitoba, specifically, we have long focused on having public housing available. So by public or social housing, I mean housing that is rented and maintained and operated by the government. And because Canada has been reluctant over the course of many decades to invest in that type of housing, the availability is in decline and it’s quite expensive for the provinces to own and maintain. And so what we see is we’re seeing public housing has increasingly long wait lists with not a lot of available stock. We see the province having to funnel the money that’s available for public housing, into repairs and upgrades to housing stock that’s deteriorated over the course of several decades and not really having existing funds to continue to build new housing that can meet growing needs. So we have more people in need of affordable housing, less and less affordable housing available to provide through the government, specifically. There are a couple of other options for affordable housing, and that includes, you know, nonprofits co-op housing. And I think something in particular in Manitoba that I’m hoping to look into is indigenous led alternative housing options.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Well, this sounds really interesting, and we’re really looking forward to seeing the final piece when it comes out. And just a final question here, how does this writer-in-residency opportunity give you the chance to really go deep into an issue like the housing crisis in Winnipeg?

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: This opportunity is fantastic. I’ve become quite accustomed to the pace of day news, which, though very important, can make it hard to spend time getting into the nuances of a story. I think even covering encampments this past summer, you can talk to people and get a sense of what the issues are, but at the end of the day, there are big system level problems at play here. And I think that this writer-in-residence opportunity, I have an amazing amount out of time and support to just explore every possible angle. I consider myself a bit of a nerd, particularly around history and policy. So I’m very excited. I’ve got the time to, say, if I want to know about something, if I think it would be interesting or valuable, or, you know, a piece of the puzzle, I have the opportunity and the time to figure that out and to pull those pieces apart and get a sense of what the bigger picture at play is. And so I’m very excited that I get to learn as much as possible about this housing issue.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Now let’s check out what Julia-Simone is watching right now.

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: I am a little bit late to the party on this, but I have been really interested in The Crown. I got really invested in Princess Diana, thanks to the You’re Wrong About podcast. So far, I find it fascinating. I’m really actually quite interested in how they cover some of the empire aspects, the colonial aspects, their visits, other countries. I think it’s fascinating. I’m getting a good, big picture of the Royal family.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Julia Simone, thanks so much for joining us today.

JULIA-SIMONE RUTGERS: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it.

SHEENA ROSSITER: That’s my conversation with Julia-Simone Rutgers. Her investigative piece about housing in Winnipeg will be coming out in the summer of 2022.

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THIS WEEK AT THE WALRUS:

DANIEL VIOLA: I’m Daniel Viola and here’s what we’ve been talking about this week at The Walrus.

Our story about how Canadian architecture is terribly, hopelessly boring got a lot of people talking on social media. Most commenters agreed with author Tracey Lindeman about the blah-ness of our buildings, and so, this week, we’ve decided to turn that idea on its head. If there’s a beautiful building near you, do us a favour. Just take a photo and tag The Walrus on Twitter or Instagram—we’d love to be proven wrong on this one.

Many of us at The Walrus are based in Ontario, which means that many of my colleagues were hit by that big winter snowstorm. Our Slack is full of photos of people digging out cars as well as pets zooming around in the snow. But not everyone was impressed: our Edmonton-based peer, Sheena, dismissed it all as “a regular January.” We do have team members all over the world who were able to live vicariously through all the videos. I for one am in London, England, where, fortunately, it hasn’t snowed once.

And finally Harley Rustad, one of the Feature Editors here at The Walrus, just released his new book, Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas. His book has been getting a lot of buzz and great review, including one from the New York Times. You can now read an excerpt of Lost in the Valley of Death on thewalrus.ca.

As always, the links for all these articles can be found in the show notes for this episode.

CREDITS:

SHEENA ROSSITER: Thanks for joining us on this week’s episode of the Deep Dive. It was produced by Angela Misri, and me, Sheena Rossiter. Shayne Giles edited this episode.

Thanks so much to Julia-Simone Rutgers and Alana Hamiton for joining us this week.

Music for this podcast is provided by Audio Jungle. Our theme song is This Podcast Theme by Inplus Music. Additional music is Stay Cool by Loops Lab, Podcast Intro by Inplus Music, and Your Favourite Place, provided by Pixabay.

Don’t forget to subscribe to Deep Dive from The Walrus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard, please leave us a review and rating. It really helps people find the podcast.

Until next week when we take our next deep dive.

The Walrus Staff

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