As winter arrives, Thunder Bay’s only funded, Indigenous-led street outreach is running out of money

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A large black vehicle rolls up to a couple of men sitting outside on the ground in an alleyway in Thunder Bay, Ont. The window rolls down.

“Hey guys, you guys okay?” a friendly voice calls out from the driver’s seat.

It’s the start of Steven Okeese and Mya Dixon’s evening shift with WiiChiiHehWayWin, the street outreach program run by the Matawa Tribal Council. 

Their first task: to check up on people who are out and about in the streets.

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But as they proceed, there is additional pressure, beyond making sure people are getting the help they need.

The only funded, Indigenous-led street outreach program in Thunder Bay is about to run out of funding for the second time this year. Just as winter arrives.

“We have water and gatorade,” Okeese offers, as Dixon hops out of the vehicle and grabs a couple drinks from the cooler in the backseat.

“Are you going to be around here later? We’re gonna go make lunch bags soon,” Okeese asks, before driving over to the next alleyway to check in with another group of people huddled underneath a vent blowing warm air.

Steven Okeese, an outreach worker with the WiiChiiHehWayWin program in Thunder Bay, Ont., grabs a couple of bottled drinks from the backseat cooler to hand out. (Logan Turner/CBC)

During this shift, Okeese and Dixon hand out food, water, and warm clothes to help with the dropping temperatures. 

On other shifts, lives have been saved.

The outreach workers have responded to overdoses, found people unresponsive in the streets, helped families search for loved ones reported missing, connecting people with a warm place to stay. They’ve even lent out their phones so people living with homelessness can call family members living back home in their First Nation.

But now, the timing of the funding crunch is leading to worries about the well-being of the vulnerable population as COVID-19 cases start to creep up and temperatures drop.

Street outreach began last winter

The WiiChiiHehWayWin program was born last winter during a series of cascading crises in the northwestern Ontario city.

On Jan. 22 of this year, the body of Arnold Sakanee, a 29-year-old man from Neskantaga First Nation, was found frozen on the front steps of the Thunder Bay Museum.

He was one of several people living with homelessness who died on the streets in a period of one month, according to reports from the Thunder Bay volunteer-run street patrol group Wiindo Debwe Mosewin.

With temperatures plunging to below -30 C and growing cases of COVID-19 within the vulnerable population last winter, a static bed list was imposed on emergency shelters in the city. So the Matawa Chiefs Council found funding and quickly started a street outreach program that ran 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

The program initially ran from Feb. 2 to March 1, helping people 232 times, before it was forced to stop after running out of funding.

Two outreach workers with the WiiChiiHehWayWin street outreach program make a stop in Thunder Bay, Ont., to see if anyone needs anything. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Matawa received additional funding from Indigenous Services Canada and the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board, which allowed them to restart in June. In the ensuing three months, 860 people were served. Data has yet to be calculated for the period of September to November. 

But money from the federal government runs out at the end of the month. Officials with the WiiChiiHehWayWin program are now trying to determine how they can keep the program running as far into December as possible with the remaining funding from the district social services board.

‘It’s your family that’s out here’

The looming end of the program is devastating for Mya Dixon, an outreach worker from Sandy Lake First Nation, with connections to Eabametoong.

It’s not just providing food and warm clothes, Dixon says they also provide a critical connection to home.

“It’s personal, because it’s our relations that are out here. It’s your family that’s out here,” she told CBC News.

Sometimes, those members don’t make it back home, and it’s out of your control that you couldn’t bring them home.– Mya Dixon, outreach worker with WiiChiiHehWayWin

“Sometimes, those members don’t make it back home, and it’s out of your control that you couldn’t bring them home.”

When she was younger, Dixon said she had a family member that lived with precarious housing in Thunder Bay.

“I would’ve wanted someone to go check on him. Someone to go say, ‘how are you doing today? Are you hungry? What do you need?'”

Matawa Tribal Council seeking stable funding

Leesa Davey, the street outreach program’s navigator, said she’s hoping the government will continue to fund them, because it’s important the vulnerable population has access to culturally safe supports. 

But she added the program needs multi-year, stable funding so they can continue to build relationships with people and advance the outreach work they are doing.

“It would be great if we had the same funding that other outreach programs get, where it’s like two-, three-year funding rather than having to apply every few months for funding.”

It’s especially necessary because they continue to support people in crisis living with mental health, addictions and homelessness challenges.

All issues that are currently underfunded by governments, Davey said.

Steven Okeese and Mya Dixon prepare sandwiches and snack bags at the Matawa Tribal Council office building in Thunder Bay, Ont., which they distributed to people they had met earlier in their shift. (Logan Turner/CBC)

A statement from Indigenous Services Canada said they are currently reviewing a proposal to continue the WiiChiiHehWayWin outreach program, but did not say when they will make a decision.

In the meantime, as the hours tick down to the programs ending, Mya Dixon is focusing on getting people the supplies they need for the winter.

“You don’t know who will be out there everyday to ensure that we don’t lose anyone,” she said.

“It’s hard to think about.”

Listen to CBC Superior Morning’s ride-along with the WiiChiiHehWayWin program here:

5:12Logan Turner: Matawa Tribal Council Outreach Program

Matawa Tribal Council is about to lose funding for its street outreach program. That’s the second time this year for a program that some say has saved lives. Hear that story. 5:12

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