Gail MacLure found herself sitting on the floor of her kitchen, crying, wondering: “Why am I here?” she says. “I was at the end of everything. I was lost.”
MacLure has struggled with depression since childhood, although she didn’t know it at the time. She confided in a friend who suggested counselling at Winnipeg’s North End Women’s Centre. MacLure was nervous because of her experiences in the adoptive system and foster care as a child and she struggled with authority figures like counsellors. Her friend was insistent, taking her to the women’s centre and sitting in on her first session.
After two years of consistent counselling, MacLure says she is in a “completely different space,” although she continues to battle depression. Having also experienced homelessness, she went through the centre’s housing program before moving into subsidized housing where she now lives. “Things are now possible, whereas before, in my own mind, nothing was possible,” she says.
In Winnipeg, 10 percent of people live in poverty — compared to eight percent of Canadians overall — including nearly one out of every four children. With the coronavirus outbreak, families have been struggling to access essentials such as meals and diapers, according to United Way Winnipeg (UWW), who is concerned how the virus will impact those who are already marginalized. In addition, over 10,000 children in Manitoba are in care, the highest rate amongst all the provinces, with nearly 90 percent being Indigenous children.
The North End Women’s Centre where MacLure turned to for support is one of 24 family resource centres in the city supported by UWW’s For Every Family initiative. The initiative aims to ensure children are ready for school when they enter kindergarten, put more money in the hands of families, and reduce the number of children in care.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, family resource centres have quickly pivoted the delivery of their services. To date, the centres have distributed more than 30,000 emergency kits across Winnipeg, with items such as food, hygiene, and activity kits for children.
“Within a week of COVID-19 hitting Winnipeg, we adapted our entire resource centre’s way of working,” says Cynthia Drebot, executive director of the North End Women’s Centre.
At the women’s centre, counselling is now being offered by phone and full moon ceremonies are conducted online. With food security being a pressing issue amongst their clients, the organization is providing meals by pick-up, along with emergency food kits, hygiene kits, diapers and formula, and harm reduction supplies such as condoms and needles.
On May 5, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the centre was unable to hold their usual in-person event, but instead, created a window display with red dresses — a symbol of missing and murdered Indigenous women — and wrote messages of support in hearts to families impacted.
Community members passing by the display began to write their own messages of support on the windows, which Drebot says shows solidarity and love.
“We’re adapting and creating community in whatever way we can.”
Long before the pandemic, the For Every Families initiative began after UWW had conversations with a small group of donors concerned with the number of children in care and the significant challenges vulnerable families were facing. Together, they set a fundraising goal of $7.5M and in partnership with the Winnipeg Foundation and others, private donors and foundations have achieved 99 percent of the goal to date. A partnership was also established with the Province of Manitoba, which agreed to match the $7.5M raised over a six year period for a total $15M investment into FRCs. The priorities were to enhance the hours of operation at FRCs, enhance programs and create a network amongst the FRCs themselves to share services and strategies and strengthen their organizational capacity.
Marianne Krawchuk, an impact and evaluation manager at UWW who leads the initiative says these resource centres, which are community-led and all have a drop-in component, are “hidden gems” across the city. “The family resource centres are not new,” Krawchuk explains. “What’s different is the way they’ve come together.” Through the initiative, staff from the centres have been meeting regularly to share best practices.
These resource centres, including the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, NorWest Co-op Community Health, and the Elmwood Community Resource Centre, provide a range of programming including cultural, parenting, emotional, or financial programs. “Everything is about making the family unit stronger together — trying to make the home life better,” Krawchuk says.
As a result of funding by the initiative, the centres have been able to be open for an extra 20,000 hours in total per year, including during evenings and weekends. “Many issues that exist in the community don’t go away at 4pm,” says Krawchuk.
At the North End Women’s Centre, the For Every Family initiative has enabled the centre to hire a counsellor, extend their drop-in hours, increase staff, and purchase bus fare for clients. Drebot says the program gave the women’s centre “an opportunity to expand to what the community needed.”
Another way that the resource centres have supported families is by offering tax clinics to people who typically would not file their taxes. The clinics have supported more than 1,000 people who have been issued over $4.8 million in refunds and tax return benefits.
For instance, Douglas*, 66, who frequented one of the participating centres, was supported in filing seven years of taxes and to apply for Old Age Security. “I was able to clear up… all my other outstanding debts. It was a big relief,” he says. With his tax return, Douglas, who was previously homeless, was able to secure a place to live and pay rent months in advance.
UWW is currently working toward a case for sustainability to show the long-term social return on investment, hoping to scale this model for supporting families. Krawchuk believes while scaling, the focus should be on strengthening relationships between existing family resource centres, as the goals will vary by city and should be determined by community members.
“When we fund centres, we go to them as the experts. We ask: ‘What does your community need and how can we support them?’” Krawchuk says.
According to Drebot, the flexibility in funding has been instrumental in adapting services offered at the North End Women’s Center to the changing needs of the community.
“Often funding comes with very stringent expectations and if the community needs changes, you can’t [change your offerings] but UWW allows us to continue to evolve and adapt based on what we hear is needed,” she says.
This flexibility has allowed clients like MacLure to access a variety of life-changing services from the women’s centre, along with many others at centres throughout the city
*Name has been changed to protect identity.