Ten things to know about homelessness in Canada’s North

Nick Falvo 1Construction costs are higher in Canada's North than in most southern jurisdictions. This is especially true in Nunavut. A major reason for this is the cost associated with transporting work crews and supplies to rural communities (i.e. commu

COMMENTARY

by Nick Falvo

1. Construction costs are higher in Canada’s North than in most southern jurisdictions. This is especially true in Nunavut. A major reason for this is the cost associated with transporting work crews and supplies to rural communities (i.e. communities located outside of larger regional centres such as Yellowknife and Whitehorse). These costs are highest for communities that lack road access to regional centres.

2. Once housing is built, it deteriorates more quickly in the North than it would in a southern jurisdiction. As Luigi Zanasi notes: “The (northern) climate results in housing deteriorating faster. Large temperature differentials between outside and inside houses in winter lead to large amounts of condensation, resulting in mould and premature rot. Movement due to permafrost freezing and thawing also takes a toll on houses.”

3. Operating costs for housing are usually higher in the North. As Zanasi notes, this is due largely to the need for higher energy consumption in a colder climate and higher energy prices. Zanasi also notes: “In Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the cost of drinking water and sewage disposal is extremely high as houses depend on trucked water delivery and sewage tank pump-outs.” Another reason for higher operating costs has to do with proximity to larger urban centres – i.e. it’s expensive to transport trades people and supplies to rural areas (especially “fly in” communities).

4. Federal funding for social housing in Canada’s North is declining. As I’ve noted before, federal funding assists each of Canada’s northern territories to operate housing for lower-income households. The annual funding from the federal government is declining at an alarming pace.

5. There is very little supportive housing in Canada’s North. Supportive housing is permanent housing for marginalized persons; it typically involves subsidy from government both to make the housing affordable to the low-income tenant and to provide professional support to the tenant household. Historically in Canada, this model of housing has generally been seen as a sensible, cost-effective response to homelessness. What’s more, it has recently been the subject of a very ambitious randomized controlled trial in five Canadian cities. Yet, there is very little supportive housing in Canada’s North.

6. Conditions in homeless shelters in the North leave much to be desired. At Yellowknife’s men’s shelter, men must sleep one foot apart from one another on thin mats. This is the same shelter that experienced a tuberculosis outbreak in 2007-2008. At Whitehorse’s only emergency shelter, women must often sleep in the same common area as men.

7. There is insufficient “harm reduction” programming in Canada’s North. “Harm reduction” refers to a public health response to drug and alcohol use whereby an effort is made to reduce the harm caused to a person (but to not necessarily aim for abstinence). Examples of harm reduction initiatives in other Canadian jurisdictions include managed-alcohol programs and needle-exchange programs.

One important example of harm reduction programming in the North is the work of Blood Ties Four Directions Centre (located in Whitehorse). I should also note that emergency shelters in both Yellowknife and Whitehorse allow residents to be intoxicated (provided their behavior is manageable) – this too can be considered a form of harm reduction. That said, I would argue that there is a strong need for more harm reduction initiatives in the North. For example, I think it would be good public policy for each respective territorial government to implement its own managed-alcohol program.

8. The “housing first” philosophy is not widely embraced throughout Canada’s North. Though there is a growing belief throughout North America that providing permanent housing to a homeless person is the most effective way to ‘fix’ their homelessness, that belief – often known as “housing first” – is not held prevalently throughout Canada’s North. (It may be that results of the aforementioned randomized controlled trial may change this mindset.)

9. Access to affordable housing remains a major challenge in Canada’s North. To access public housing (which is a means-tested benefit) a person must usually apply for it. In Yellowknife, most social housing is administered by the Yellowknife Housing Authority, which prioritizes its bachelor and one-bedroom units for persons who are either over the age of 60 or who have a physical disability. Thus: “No single, unattached person, unless in one of those two categories, has ever or will ever get into a public housing unit administered by the Yellowknife Housing Authority, under the current system.”

In Whitehorse, it can take up to nine months for a person to just have their name put on the social housing wait list; and once they’re on the list, they can be removed from it if they do not “check back” with a social wait-list administrator at least once a month. (Needless to say, all of this runs contrary to the “housing first” philosophy discussed above.)

10. When considering homelessness in Canada’s North, it’s important to understand migration patterns. An evaluation of Yellowknife’s day shelter done in 2011 found that just one-third of the people using it were actually from Yellowknife – almost half were from “other N.W.T. communities” and one-fifth were from “outside of the N.W.T.” Put differently, addressing homelessness in Yellowknife benefits residents from throughout the N.W.T., just as addressing poverty in rural areas of the N.W.T. can help prevent homelessness in Yellowknife.

Nick Falvo is a PhD candidate in the school of public policy and administration at Carleton University. This article originally appeared on the website of Northern Public Affairs. You can follow Falvo on Twitter at @nicholas_falvo.