Swallows flutter out from beneath a bridge over a shallow Winnipeg creek next to where Allan Par has made himself a home in one of the unlikeliest of places.
“I like the solitude,” Par says from outside the significant two-room shack he built from scavenged pallet wood, shingles and other discarded materials from surrounding commercial businesses.
The building backs onto a parking lot bridge over Omand’s Creek off Empress Street in Winnipeg’s busy St. James industrial area. Par says he’s been living beneath the bridge and in the shack for the past year.
His struggle with homelessness shares some of the hallmarks of those living on the streets: down on his luck and with no support network, he was forced to improvise and focus on survival.
He’s a victim of the same judgments and stigma that follow others like him.
“I suffer from stress because there’s a lot … that discriminate [against] me and sometimes they hurt me,” he says.
There are other things that set him apart.
The 41-year-old immigrated to Winnipeg from Manila, Philippines, with the help of sponsors nine years ago. He says he bounced from job to job in the first three years but was repeatedly let go without explanation.
‘I expected … a better life’
When his relationship and living arrangement with his sponsors soured, he found himself with no money and nowhere to turn.
Now, part of him regrets ever leaving Manila.
“I expected … here in Canada, I have a better job, I have a better work, I have a better life,” he said. “But it’s the reverse.”
Back home, he said he was employed in the welfare and social work sector, helping the unemployed learn how to use Microsoft Excel, Powerpoint and other basic computer programs that often go hand-in-hand with securing a job.
His job was to help people, Par said, and he recognizes the troubling irony of his situation these days — as does Winnipeg police Const. Brian Boyd.
Boyd said a disturbance complaint was reported about the shack 10 days ago. He went to investigate and said he quickly realized Par was resourceful and wasn’t necessarily disturbing anyone; he just needed help.
‘I just want a job’
“I seen this magnificent structure that he built,” says Boyd, a 20-year member of the force who has been checking on Par lately.
“What he stressed to me, over and over again: ‘Brian, I just want a job.'”
Boyd arranged for a city social worker to visit Par last week to get some particulars from him and see what he needed.
The case was then handed off to Main Street Project, a community organization and shelter that helps the homeless.
A pair of Main Street Project employees visited Par Thursday and he signed a consent form letting them look for a more permanent living situation for him.
Adrienne Dudek, director of supportive and transition housing with Main Street Project, said the organization’s housing experts will be working with Par to find out what his options are.
“The more complex piece to this is the lack of options out there,” she said.
“The actual footprint to dealing with homelessness is creating more housing … housing that is dictated by the people who require it.”
Against zoning bylaws
It’s against city zoning bylaws to construct buildings like Par’s on public property, said city spokesperson Ken Allen.
“But I can tell you that all reasonable care is taken to protect the privacy, safety and health of any persons affected by the removal of temporary homeless encampments,” he wrote in an email.
Rather than prioritizing tearing down a homeless camp or shack like Par’s, Allen says now the city is working with Main Street Project in “sensitive” cases to ensure they’re handled with care.
Neil Migalski is co-owner of the Vapour Mill Outlet, one several business above the parking lot bridge over the creek.
At first, he didn’t really like seeing the odd structure sprouting up, bit by bit. Once he saw Par’s vision and ingenuity unfold, he had a change of heart.
“As it was going up it was getting more and more amazing,” said Migalski, adding someone in the construction trade should recognize Par’s craftsmanship and hire him.
“I would almost like to see it gone because it’s sort of an eyesore, but now it’s become an attraction and I would feel really bad if the guy lost his home.”
‘My life here … is very, very poor’
Par says he’ll continue working on his shack while the weather is warm and he waits to see how things pan out.
He says he doesn’t drink or do drugs, and chose to live outside of downtown, away from the shelters and soup kitchens where most of Winnipeg’s homeless reside, because he finds the Empress area safe.
Before he settled near the bridge, Par spent cold nights at the airport and early mornings at a West End community gym.
Apart from a sleeping bag and clothing, he says the only thing he had to keep him warm through frigid nights last winter was the heat given off by five candles … and his faith.
Inside his building, a rosary hangs over Par’s bed, which was built with a combination of pallets and blankets.
“Every time I am stressed, I pray,” says Par, who’s Roman Catholic. “My life here in Canada is very, very poor.”
He passes the time by listening to an eclectic mix CDs on his Sony Discman — The Eagles, Toto, The Offspring, Kenny Rogers — and on expanding his shack.
It already has a window that lets light into a kitchen where he plans to build a wash basin.
“I need to be a hard [worker] because I want a better place, I want a better place to [stay] every night, especially in winter. In winter it’s very cold and it’s very hard to live in the street.”
He remains skeptical about his prospects in Winnipeg. He wants a job and a home, but he feels disheartened after all these years on the street.
Par questions whether the promise of a better life in Canada that drew him here is really all that it seemed.
“I’m [a] hard worker,” he said. “Other people, instead of help me, they judge me.”