North End housing complex proof Neighbourhoods Alive! works

August 9, 2017

Neighbourhoods AliveNeighbourhoods Alive! is a clear case of intelligent public investment, but the provincial government has halted funding, and the program is inactive. This is counterproductive and does little to heal the bridge between First Nations and the rest of Winnipeg.

Neighbourhoods Alive! funds community development initiatives in 13 low-income urban areas in Manitoba, including six in Winnipeg’s inner city. In 2015-16, the program invested $4.8 million into 182 projects in urban areas with high rates of complex poverty. It has been instrumental in bringing about much-needed positive change in these neighbourhoods.

A good example is Lord Selkirk Park, which is Winnipeg’s largest public housing complex. It is located in the heart of the North End. In the 1990s, it was half-empty. Units were boarded up. Those who lived and worked there at the time routinely referred to it as a “war zone.” It was not safe and was widely seen as a place to avoid.

In 2005, the North End Community Renewal Corp., which receives core funding from Neighbourhoods Alive!, secured a federal government grant to work in the complex to reduce crime and violence.

The renewal corporation team began its work in the complex by meeting with residents, developing relationships, earning peoples’ trust and learning about the hopes and fears of those who lived there. This is classic community organizing.

People told us they wanted a safe space to meet, where they could talk with neighbours and break down the social isolation they experienced. We responded by creating a resource centre in an empty unit. Neighbourhoods Alive! contributed significantly to its funding.

Residents told us they wanted to earn their Grade 12 diploma. Many were single parents with, on average, junior high-level education. They were stuck on social assistance and hated it. They wanted to change their lives. We negotiated with the provincial government to locate an adult learning centre in the complex and to create a literacy program. Because parents — especially single parents — needed child care to take advantage of educational opportunities, we negotiated again with the provincial government to locate a 47-space child-care centre in Lord Selkirk.

It is just over a decade since we started. Throughout that decade, Neighbourhoods Alive! has provided consistent and substantial financial support to both the renewal corporation and the complex’s resource centre.

Today, Lord Selkirk is a different place. It is fully occupied. There is a wait list of people wanting to live there — evidence of the many improvements. There are some 60 newcomer families living there; they have become a seamless part of the largely indigenous community. Approximately 80 adults have graduated with their mature Grade 12 diploma from Kaakiyow, the adult learning centre. Few would otherwise have been able to earn their Grade 12. The literacy program is full to capacity and has a wait list — residents want to take advantage of opportunities to change their lives. The child-care centre is piloting the Abecedarian model and is proving to be hugely beneficial to children, especially in terms of language acquisition. A recent evaluation of the resource centre reported it is “highly successful” and is having a “profound impact in the lives of neighbourhood residents.”

This is a dramatic success story. What was one of Winnipeg’s most difficult neighbourhoods has been transformed significantly. It has taken only a decade. If this can happen in a neighbourhood as challenged as Lord Selkirk was, it can happen anywhere. But it requires the kind of funding that Neighbourhoods Alive! provides.

There is much more still to be done.

On the day the provincial government announced that the funding was frozen, the renewal corporation released a new five-year vision for the North End. The plan for economic and social renewal was developed in collaboration with North End residents. It prioritizes opportunities for youth to break intergenerational cycles of poverty, which is especially important since the North End has the highest child-apprehension rates, and shamefully, more than 10,000 children — 90 per cent of them indigenous — in the care of child and family services.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry have called for solutions that get at the roots of this problem. The renewal corporation’s plan is intended to do that. That’s what has happened in Lord Selkirk. But this work needs resources, and so restoring provincial funding is essential.

Originally published on the Winnipeg Free Press on December 12, 2016 by Jim SIlver

Jim SilverJim Silver is a professor and chairman of the University of Winnipeg’s department of urban and inner-city studies,needs resurrection and was an active member of the team that worked in Lord Selkirk Park starting in 2005. Dr. Silver is also a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — Manitoba.