Persistent activist monitors security issues and spends hours calling 311
Darrell Warren’s visit to William Whyte’s neighborhood focuses on his pain points:
This is where a fire destroyed three houses and a tree; over there, a pile of yard waste got so high it spilled over the fence; people keep breaking into this locked house.
Warren is acutely aware of the details as he has made it his personal mission to work them out. The lifelong North Ender and President of the William Whyte Neighborhood Association fights to make his community a safer and more livable place.
Much of this involves tackling persistent health and safety risks, such as piles of rubbish that pose fire hazards, vacant buildings and endless illegal dumping.
Her weapon against these evils is often weak, but with perseverance and teamwork, she gets the job done.
Warren calls 311. A lot.
In fact, a Free press analysis of 2.5 years of city data shows the Mynarski council area – which includes William Whyte and other parts of the North End, as well as half of West Kildonan – has more than double the number of 311 complaints compared to any other neighborhood, including three times the number of “neighbourhood livability” complaints.
Warren is responsible for a few hundred of those calls. Per year.
“I call constantly,” he told the free press, adding that he is recruiting others as well. “I try to encourage other people to report because the more people who report, the faster it seems to happen.”
“I’m constantly calling…I try to encourage other people to report because the more people who report, the faster it seems to get done.” –Darrell Warren
The calls from Warren and his team fall under the Neighborhood 311 category of livability complaints which covers basic property maintenance, noise control, open burning and garbage disposal. Residents of Mynarski were responsible for nearly 8,300 of the 15 neighborhoods in the total of 22,900 neighborhood livability complaints filed from January 2020 to April 2022, the Free press shows the analysis.
Warren says he managed to push the city via 311, but it takes a while to get through (he waited up to three hours on the phone, his preferred method of reporting since he’s not a “guy in line”) and sometimes up to 20 days to bring in city crews to fix the issues.
“In 20 days, a building could be burned down and disappear,” he says.
The city acknowledged that its 311 system was struggling to keep up with demand, largely due to a staffing shortage. The workers’ union says the 311 employees are the lowest paid in the city of Winnipeg and that better wages would attract and retain desperately needed staff. Demand for 311 continues unabated – over 100,000 complaints have been filed in the past 2 1/2 years.
On a sunny afternoon in May, when the Free press visits William Whyte, Warren points out a backyard problem that often has trash piled up near the house – a fire hazard. Warren says he called 311 several times about that address. It seems his perseverance paid off. Someone moved the giant trash pile into the back lane to – hopefully – get swept away.
But in the meantime, some of the trash has been blown into a park across the street. Dirty diapers lie on the boulevard and soggy pieces of paper, plastic bottles and packets of cigarettes litter the playground.
Of course, the accumulation of waste is not the worst thing that can happen to a community. But Warren wants his neighbors to feel they can be proud of where they live. Part of that means refusing to let people treat it like a dump.
At least twice a year, the neighborhood association takes matters into its own hands. Up to 100 volunteers help with spring and fall community cleanups, filling dumpsters with a shocking volume of trash.
“We pick up bulky items like sofas, mattresses,” says Warren. “Anything that people could set on fire.”
It may seem like an exercise in futility.
“We walk down those same streets a day or two later, and it’s like we haven’t even been there,” he says. “It is very frustrating.”
Mynarski Councilman Ross Eadie empathizes.
He remembers visiting William Whyte’s neighborhood when a car pulled up. The door opened and bags of trash came out. The driver accelerated.
“It’s so insurmountable…we can’t get out of this,” Eadie said.
“It’s (waste) so insurmountable…we can’t get out of it.” –Ross Eadie
But the problems of vacant buildings, slums, abandoned housing, litter and illegal dumping predate Eadie’s 12 years as mayor.
They are symptoms of deeply rooted social challenges.
“There are people struggling with serious social issues like drug addiction…with mental health issues and hoarding,” he says.
These residents have found affordable homes in neighborhoods such as William Whyte, but keeping up to date with waste disposal may not be high on their agenda.
“Mynarski will still be the highest (for 311 complaints) until we make systemic changes to address these issues,” he says.
Still, Eadie worries about the immediate safety risks to area residents — from improperly discarded needles to ballooning piles of trash.
“I don’t want my neighborhood to burn down,” he says.
“I don’t want my neighborhood to burn down.” –Ross Eadie
Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Deputy Chief Scott Wilkinson said anything flammable stacked against a building is a fire hazard. But the trash can does not ignite by itself; the trash fires fire crews respond to are often “suspicious in nature,” though it’s often unclear who is responsible, he says.
Regardless of how the trash got there, “the owner remains responsible for removal,” the city says. However, if residents are able to move the items to where the garbage is picked up, the city will do it for free.
City spokesman Kalen Qually notes that the city conducts “arson sweeps” from May through September, when they pick up “all bulky items and as much debris from the lanes as possible.” The Solid Waste Division is also working with the William Whyte Neighborhood Association to plan sweeps around the community cleanup.
Warren is grateful for the town’s help. He just wishes he didn’t have to spend hours calling 311 to do anything.
Katrina Clarke is an investigative reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press.
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