Working to build a stronger Inner City in Winnipeg.
This is the second issue of the Canadian Journal of Urban Research sponsored by WIRA. Support from the Community University Research Alliance (CURA) program funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) have made both the research and these publications possible.
This articles in the past issue (CJUR 14:1 Summer 2005) and in this current issue (CJUR 15:1 Summer 2006) demonstrate that WIRA research has been very focused on problems people face and the challenges experienced by people who have been marginalized or are at the "struggle level" in Winnipeg's inner city. This focus is what the program hoped to achieve: effective solutions cannot be found until the complexity of issues and problems is fully understood.
However, we don't want to leave the impression that the inner city is a wasteland without assets and capacity to address these issues. There are many strong organizations working very hard to improve the quality of life of the individuals and groups who face the challenges that the research projects and articles in this journal document. Some of these organizations were involved as community research partners in the WIRA projects that form the basis of the articles in this issue. A brief profile of these organizations is provided below.
Two closely associated organizations, Ten Ten Sinclair Housing Inc. and Fokus Management Inc. promote, support and develop independent living for people with physical disabilities. Both provide assisted living housing with a range of on-site support services such as assistance with personal care, household tasks, and health needs. Established in the mid-1970s, Ten Ten Sinclair provides a transitional living situation where people develop the skills to live independently, and in partnership with Fokus housing operates independent living housing and services in the community. Fokus housing offers permanent housing and permanent, shared support services for physically disabled adults.
The First Nations DisABILITY Association of Manitoba is an organization that provides culturally appropriate peer support, advocacy and referral services to First Nations persons with disabilities throughout the province. A large part of the organization's work includes workshops and activities that raise awareness of visible and invisible disability issues as they apply to First Nations people. It strives to achieve the social and economic enhancement of First Nations persons living with disabilities and works toward the elimination of any and all societal limitations and/or barriers.
Sage House, a program of Mount Carmel Clinic, is a street outreach and health drop-in resource centre primarily for sex trade workers. It also provides services to any street involved women and transgenders, including intravenous drug users and street youth. It provides information, advocacy, counseling, testing, assessment and treatment plus referrals to medical and social services. Sage House also offers supports and assistance to help meet clients' basic needs including kitchen, laundry and bathing facilities.
In the same area of Winnipeg's inner city are two organizations that undertake more broadly targeted community development work. The North End Housing Project provides opportunities for home ownership for low-income families through building and renovating housing in several inner city neighbourhoods. The organization is a partner in the Aboriginal Youth Renovation Program which offers Aboriginal ex-offenders the opportunity to gain renovation and construction skills. Through this and other programs and activities, North End Housing contributes to neighbourhood renewal.
Another community development organization in the area is the North End Community Renewal Corporation. Its mandate is to promote the economic, social and cultural renewal of the neighbourhoods in Winnipeg's North End. It works to achieve this through job creation, employment development for local residents, improving the quality and accessibility of housing in the area, promoting renewal and development of business activity, reducing crime, improving the image of the community, and offering cultural and community development opportunities. The corporation provides coordination support and a strategic focus for many of the other community revitalization activities taking place in the North End. A number of similar community development organizations exist throughout the inner city, each offering a range of activities and programs created to overcome challenges associated with marginalization, and tailored to meet the needs of area residents.
SEED Winnipeg Inc., also in Winnipeg's North End, offers a variety of services and supports to low-income individuals, groups, organizations and neighbourhoods to improve economic vitality, combat poverty, and contribute to renewal of inner city communities. At SEED, individuals can access guidance in financial management and saving for long-term assets. Social research, program development, marketing, organizational training, proposal writing and technical assistance is provided for new or existing businesses and organizations engaged in community economic development.
Assiniboine Credit Union also offers services for local community economic development initiatives and supports social development, with a commitment to building strong self-reliant communities that continue to prosper and grow. Through policies embracing fairness and justice, extra efforts are made to meet the needs of those not well served by traditional financial institutions.
In fact, both SEED Winnipeg and the Assiniboine Credit Union are partners (among others) in the Alternative Financial Services Coalition (AFSC). This initiative focuses on the development of customized financial services geared to low-income residents in the inner city, to increase their opportunities to improve their economic well being. The work of the AFSC is based on community economic development principles, with an emphasis on co-operation, education, participation, self-reliance, and social dignity.
The work of these and many similar organizations in Winnipeg's inner city make a positive difference. However, despite their best efforts, problems persist and many people in Winnipeg's inner city continue to face a very bleak existence. The organizations themselves struggle to maintain their operations and the services they provide. Long term funding is rarely secure nor is it sufficient to respond to all the needs. Many groups spend much of their valuable time preparing applications and requests for funding, responding to proposal calls, raising funds through charitable functions, meeting with various levels of government and engaging generally in a search for funds to continue their operations. Without long term secure and sustaining funds it is difficult to develop solid strategic plans for the future, and maintain programs to respond to the many needs of the people living in the inner city. Government funding is available to assist these organizations and funding through the provincial Neighbourhoods Alive! Program is making a positive difference with its support for housing, community economic development, community safety and many other initiatives. All three orders of government make contributions through the Winnipeg Partnership Agreement and the Winnipeg Housing and Homelessness Initiative to fund a range of programs that support inner city revitalization efforts. But is it enough?
The task of organizations working in the inner city is not getting any easier. In addition to the funding challenges they face, there are a number of societal trends causing an ever-increasing need for their services. Processes of economic restructuring have resulted in a number of changes to the labour market that have disproportionately affected inner city populations. Over the last couple of decades the labour market shifted emphasis to part-time and temporary jobs with less security and fewer benefits attached. There have also been declining employment opportunities for people with low skill levels as many blue collar-manufacturing positions disappeared, moved to suburban locations, or even other countries. The generally low level of education and skills among inner city residents means they have been disproportionately affected by these trends. This has resulted in an increase in long-term unemployment for many inner-city people. More people are forced to rely on unemployment insurance and social assistance.
The social safety net that many of the more marginalized groups depend on has weakened, leaving many people even more vulnerable than they were in the past. It has become much more difficult to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits, and those who do qualify have seen their benefits reduced. Social assistance rates have not increased to keep pace with the cost of living, leaving people even further in poverty and dependent on food banks and other service agencies. A recent report on welfare incomes by the National Council of Welfare (2006) illustrates very clearly how far increases in welfare incomes have fallen behind the increases in the cost of living and the depth of poverty people on welfare experience. Many of the new arrivals to Winnipeg (Aboriginal people and refugees) also lack the education and skills to access adequate employment, placing even greater pressure on the social safety net and the many service agencies in the inner city.
At the same time that inner city residents' purchasing power is decreasing, the supply of affordable housing is also diminishing, leaving them with substantially fewer housing options. In recent years the supply of affordable housing has declined due to lower levels of government funding for publicly subsidized housing and reduced investment in private sector rentals. This is compounded by the growing number of people seeking affordable housing. The increasing number of low-income immigrants and refugees arriving in Winnipeg and the movement of low-income Aboriginal people to the city place even greater pressure on the declining inventory of affordable rental units. So many people are on the waiting lists for publicly subsidized affordable accommodation that waiting times are months, and even years. This has meant that many households are forced to pay unreasonable amounts of their income for poorer quality units where they often live in very crowded circumstances. This is particularly true for Aboriginal people, refugees and people living on social assistance. More households are falling into the category of "hidden homeless." They become "couch surfers" living with friends or relatives or are at risk of losing their accommodation because they cannot afford the rent, the unit gets condemned, or it simply becomes an inadequate living environment. This difficult housing situation in combination with other factors has also contributed to the higher number of homeless people on the street.
These societal trends combined with limited levels of funding from governments and a weakening social safety net means that the level of socioeconomic marginalization and associated poverty remains high in Winnipeg's inner city. The articles in this journal document the difficulties faced by some of these marginalized populations, based on the work of WIRA community-university research partnership projects.
The first two articles examine the intersection of issues involving disabilities, housing and community. "Housing for Assisted Living in Inner-City Winnipeg: A Social Analysis of Housing Options for People with Disabilities" by Owen and Watters, provides an assessment of the appropriateness of an inner city location for assisted living housing for younger adults with disabilities. This analysis reaches beyond the walls and into the surrounding inner city community to examine issues such as personal safety, proximity to and accessibility of amenities and services, and the potential impact of these factors on residents' quality of life. The next article also highlights these issues, in this case relating to the needs unique to people with disabilities who are dying. How cultural and social aspects of housing that create a sense of home help ease their final life stages is examined in Stienstra and Wiebe's research "Finding Our Way Home: Home and End-of-life Transitions for People with Disabilities."
The often vast complexity of issues faced by marginalized groups is brought to light in "Challenges Faced by Women Working in the Inner City Sex Trade. " In this article, Brown, et. al. put forth the words of female sex trade workers to illuminate the personal, systemic and societal barriers that brought them to the trade and that keep them from exiting. Difficulty accessing income assistance is primary among these barriers and contributes significantly to the challenges of overcoming other obstacles in their lives.
Difficulty obtaining income assistance is certainly not unique to sex trade workers, but it is common among many marginalized populations. In the article "Welfare In Winnipeg's Inner City: Exploring The Myths" Sheldrick et. al., explore the stereotypes and misconceptions that underpin the welfare system and influence how benefits are allocated. This puts applicants and recipients in positions of disadvantage in trying to understand and negotiate a system that does not offer supports corresponding to their needs.
This is supported in Kohm's article entitled "'Welfare is the second last resort. The last resort is death.' An Exploratory Analysis of Social Assistance, Victimization and Crime. " This research involved the "poorest of the poor" of social assistance recipients who reported constantly struggling to access and maintain their welfare benefits. A main issue faced by this marginalized population is that of being victims of crime that escalates around "welfare cheque days." A related issue raised in this article is the reliance on cheque-cashing services due to a lack of access in the inner city to financial services that meet the needs of marginalized populations. This issue was examined closely by Buckland and Martin in the first WIRA sponsored issue (CJUR 14:1 Summer 2005) in the article "Two-Her Banking: The Rise of Fringe Banks in Winnipeg's Inner City." Kohm's article concludes that victimization of welfare recipients could be decreased by the establishment of a community-based financial institution that is responsive to their needs.
A number of models of this type of financial service are described in the final article "Fringe Financial Services, Inner-city Banking & Community-based Solutions. " Authors Buckland et. al. examine alternative financial institutions that charge reasonable transaction fees, encourage savings, are conveniently located in the inner city and are welcoming and accessible. This article outlines the feasibility and plans for the establishment of a community financial services center in Winnipeg's inner city that would remove the barriers many marginalized people face in accessing mainstream banking services, while remaining affordable and convenient.
Clearly there are many strong organizations working to improve the quality of life of inner city residents. They are doing an outstanding job of delivering programs and services to marginalized people. It is just as clear, however, that the number of marginalized people in the inner city remains very high. They face increased difficulties accessing affordable housing, adequate employment opportunities and a range of other support services required to improve their lives. Governments are providing support but more support is needed. When the WIRA initiative began, the focus was on community/university partnership research to build a stronger inner city. Because of the support and dedication of both academic and community partners and funding from SSHRC and CMHC, WIRA has been able to make a positive difference in creating a foundation of knowledge on which to build a stronger inner city. However, overcoming the significant challenges facing the inner city and its residents requires a strong and on-going partnership between community, government, the private sector, the voluntary sector, the academic community and many others. The battle has still not been won and when one looks at the many difficult challenges people in the inner city face, the obvious conclusion is that there is much work to be done. Winnipeg, however, has a history of rising to challenges. The many positive initiatives in the inner city and the work of many community based organizations leaves much room for hope.
National Council of Welfare. 2006. Welfare Incomes, 2005, Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, Ottawa.
Tom Carter Canada Research Chair in Urban Change and Adaptation and Professor of Geography
Anita Friesen Community Liaison Director Winnipeg Inner City Research Alliance