Winnipeg's Siloam Mission is a sanctuary for the city's homeless, a place of shelter from a precarious life on the street.
On Monday, days after the murders of two men whose bodies were discovered a block apart, residents and staff watched as police officers taped off the shelter's back alley and loaded three dumpsters onto a flatbed truck.
The mission had temporarily become a crime scene that left Winnipeggers with more questions about why and how 65-year-old Donald Collins and 48-year-old Stony Bushie were killed.
The Winnipeg Police Service has been reluctant to provide many details—including the significance of the dumpsters—regarding what they describe as the "brutal killings" of Collins and Bushie, one of whom was homeless, the other said to have spent much of his life on the streets. Both men supposedly suffered from mental health problems and addictions. Police also have not said exactly how they were killed and autopsies are pending. But, investigators are reviewing surveillance footage that shows Bushie being attacked behind the headquarters for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), according to CBC.
In an unprecedented move, the police released a statement on Saturday urging people living on the streets to be extra cautious and travel in groups.
On Monday evening, police interviewed a "person of interest" in the cases, but haven't laid any charges, and are asking anyone with information to come forward.
Liza Pacheco, Siloam Mission's deputy director of operations, told VICE that while these murders are horrendous and rare, they are in line with a broader culture of violence experienced by vulnerable people in Winnipeg. Other examples include local homeless people being physically and verbally assaulted by passersby, and drivers not slowing down when they try to cross the street.
"This is what the stigma of being homeless entails," she said. "And unfortunately for them, I think safety is always going to be a concern. This incident heightens that, but it doesn't mean that it's something that's completely new to them."
While none of the hundreds of residents at The Salvation Army's homeless shelter in Winnipeg have told the shelter's services coordinator Mark Stewart they knew the men who were killed, he says they are all deeply saddened and concerned about the incidents. On Sunday night, around 50 people gathered for a vigil near the spots where the men were found, playing drums and chanting. And volunteers have been patrolling the streets nightly near the murders to look out for any danger. "At times like these, the community rallies together, trying to ensure safety for themselves and for their friends," Stewart told VICE News.
According to a 2011 report by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, more than 1,400 people will sleep on the city's streets or in shelters on any given night, and more than 28,000 people in Winnipeg live in "inadequate housing." And while the crime rate in the downtown core is slightly higher than the rest of the city, Stewart said Winnipeg is a pretty safe place to live overall, and that violence among marginalized populations can be found in any major city in Canada. "I don't ever remember multiple murders happening here," he noted, adding that lighting could help make the area safer.
"I hope that what comes out of this is an awareness that whether people are homeless or coming out of homelessness, that they do need more support from the community," Stewart says.
More details about the deaths are expected to come this week.
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