Sara Riel has expanded services into a new location in downtown Winnipeg: the McLaren Hotel. Originally constructed in 1915, the building now houses 150 people seeking low-cost rental housing. With small rooms for rent, shared bathrooms and an often-shifting resident population, the building was identified as a location where social work supports could be impactful.
The McLaren, which has not seen many updates over the years, is slated for a renovation project that will see safer, updated rooms as well as expanded bathroom and kitchen spaces. The changes, led by the Equal Housing Initiative, will be gradual, so as not to displace current residents, and every effort is being made to keep the rents as close to the current rates ($530 to $590 a month) as possible.
While plans are being firmed up for construction, a small team of social work students, led by Cristina Santos, a mental health counsellor and case manager for Sara Riel, have begun building relationships with residents.
“The people who live here have all been through a lot,” explains Santos. “It’s hard to earn their trust, as many of the residents have had difficult or negative experiences navigating the supports available to them.”
The team is focused on meeting residents where they’re at. “The supports they need can seem so simple,” Santos continues. “Some people might need a birth certificate and they aren’t sure where to start. Or perhaps they qualify for better housing but aren’t aware of it. We’ve been able to help some folks who are 55+ transfer to housing that is more appropriate and offers more services to meet their needs. That’s been really encouraging.”
Santos stresses that the supports being offered by the team are highly personalized, and optional, as they acknowledge that many residents feel a little left behind or forgotten about. “We have people who have been living here for 30 years, who visit shelters to get their meals and other services,” she explains. “So we’re trying to offer supports closer to home, but that has to start with building a relationship with them and truly listening to what they need.”
The group is coordinating nutritional workshops, medical clinics for vaccinations, and acting as a case workers in times when residents are not able to connect with the worker assigned to them. “Collaboration matters here,” shares Santos. “They know what they need, so once they let us know, we can start working on what matters to them. We’ve also been offering these supports to the larger community. We’re proud to be one more location where someone can get help if they need it.”
Santos is hopeful that the model being co-created at the McLaren will be expanded to other locations in the future. “I always remember my first tour here, and seeing how people were living,” she says. “I don’t think people understand how bad it is. Right next to city hall and near all these beautiful condos and apartments, it’s shocking to see people washing their dishes in a bathtub, or not having access to safe spaces. We don’t always see this reality because it’s easier that way. But I truly hope this opens to the doors to other projects. These residents deserve better. Everyone does.”