Liberals build on supported housing

The Liberals would fund Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition's project to house Whitehorse's most marginalized, if elected, says Patrick Singh. The Downtown Centre candidate already knows many of the potential tenants.

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The Liberals would fund Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition’s project to house Whitehorse’s most marginalized, if elected, says Patrick Singh.

The Downtown Centre candidate already knows many of the potential tenants.

Singh sees them hanging out at the Salvation Army, across from his music shop. And he gives them free lunch, when he’s selling hotdogs on Main Street.

“You all know Shirtless Bill,” said Singh, during the Liberals’ first official election announcement on Monday.

“He strolls the street in all temperatures with his shirt unbuttoned.”

The last time Singh saw Bill, he gave him a free smokie, then threw a question at him.

“I asked him if he’d move into supported housing, if it was available and he said, ‘Yes,’” said Singh.

“The Salvation Army is just not able to provide all the support these people need.”

For the last year, Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition spent more than 1,000 volunteer hours drafting a proposal to build a 20-room supported apartment complex downtown for the city’s hardest to house.

By March, the housing coalition had found land, obtained zoning approval, recruited an architect who volunteered time and even had a builder lined up.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation was onboard, and gave the group $10,000 in seed funding.

And the coalition had backing from several banks.

All it needed was $900,000 from Health and Social Services to get the ball rolling and start breaking ground.

The money never materialized.

The Yukon Party government has $18 million in housing money sitting unused in the bank, said Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell during the news conference.

“We urged the new premier in May to make use of the summer building season and use some of that money to address the housing crisis,” he said.

“But his government just sat on that money.”

Last winter, the coalition requested the $900,000 to start building its supported housing.

The project was budgeted at $1.8 million, government would have funded half of it and the rest of the money would have come from bank loans.

In March, Health and Social Services assured the housing coalition it would have its answer by June.

But June came and went.

Despite frequent attempts to reach the department, the coalition heard nothing.

“It’s pretty disrespectful,” coalition member Kate Mechan told the News several weeks ago.

All the folks on the steering committee have put in hundreds and hundreds of hours working on the business plan and proposal, she said.

“And we have all these other parties on our building team, like the architect, and the builders, the property owners, banks and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation – we can’t just leave them in limbo.

“It’s not professional.”

So, the coalition called it quits and withdrew its proposal.

“We can’t keep waiting around just because the government can’t come to the table and act like an adult,” said Mechan.

“All we wanted was to sit down and talk – not leave it hanging for four months.”

Now another winter is coming, she said.

“And the clients we were working to support are going to be in the exact same position.”

Although the coalition has withdrawn its proposal, Mitchell is sure he could get it back on the table under a Liberal government.

“The proposal was withdrawn as a result of frustration with the current government’s inaction and closed-door policy,” he said.

“But a government’s responsibility is to look after society’s least fortunate,” he said.

Rather than choosing to ignore the problem and pretending it doesn’t exist, the Liberals will support the housing coalition, he said.

This will take all the pressure off Whitehorse General Hospital, the RCMP and emergency medical services, added Singh.

“I see police and ambulances at the Salvation Army three, four times a day,” he said.

“Building supported housing would actually save taxpayers a lot of money.

“And we would be taking care of society’s least fortunate.”

In Alaska, the government has taken huge steps to house its down-and-out population.

In the last few months, its state housing authority has purchased two hotels, one in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks. The single-occupancy rooms are going to be used to house the city’s homeless.

“We’ve had politicians wringing their hands about our chronic public inebriates problem,” said Alaska Mental Health Trust CEO Jeff Jessee in a recent interview with the News.

Local politicians didn’t like the homeless camping in public parks and in parking lots, but they didn’t want to house them either, he said.

So Jessee invited the politicos to Seattle to see homeless hotels in action.

The Seattle police were the biggest supporters, “because they deal with these folks all the time,” said Jessee.

The Seattle hospitals’ emergency rooms also saw a huge drop in call volume.

“People don’t realize what heavy consumers of health care these people are,” he said.

By the time the Anchorage junket flew back from Seattle, the doubting politicos were convinced.

No only were Seattle’s police and hospital getting fewer calls, the tenants in the hotel also found themselves drinking less, and their health improved, said Jessee.

So, Alaska’s government bought a hotel in Anchorage and another in Fairbanks and kicked-off its own housing-first program.

“Even if you don’t think they’re deserving of help, you can argue that the costs to taxpayers go down when you house these people,” said Jessee.

In Whitehorse, the Westmark Klondike has been for sale since February.

The 99-room hotel is listed for $6.8 million.

It’s just a matter of finding the political will to buy the building and run it as supported housing.

Or, the Yukon government could simply have funded the Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition’s comprehensive proposal by providing $900,000 from its $18 million in housing money.

Jessee has invited Yukon politicians and government employees to visit Alaska’s homeless hotels.

“We’d be happy to organize a trip here, so your government officials can see that it works,” he said.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com

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