talking the talk about poverty

The Yukon government has talked about creating a social inclusion plan for four years. So far, it remains just that: talk. For the uninitiated, "social inclusion" is a clinical way for politicians and bureaucrats to discuss the suffering of the poor.

The Yukon government has talked about creating a social inclusion plan for four years. So far, it remains just that: talk.

For the uninitiated, “social inclusion” is a clinical way for politicians and bureaucrats to discuss the suffering of the poor, without having to actually utter the word “poverty.” They’d rather not say that word aloud, because that would require acknowledging, however briefly, the suffering around us.

That could be embarrassing. When you’re in the business of making the government look good, it’s best to keep things safe and abstract.

It remains to be seen whether this forthcoming strategy amounts to anything meaningful. Drafting reports is a favourite stalling strategy for politicians, and some of the resulting papers aren’t good for much other than serving as doorstops.

Take the territory’s much-ballyhooed education strategy, New Horizons, which is full of bafflegab and nearly bereft of measurable goals.

It would be a shame if the social inclusion strategy suffered the same fate, because it tackles an important subject. Consider some of the following:

* Each year, about 250 different people stay at least one night at the Sally Ann’s emergency shelter in Whitehorse. Between 30 and 40 are “regulars” who have lived at the shelter for at least five years. They’re all heavy drinkers with chronic health problems.

* Lucky clients at the Sally Ann sleep on a bed or mat. Often, more than 15 people are forced to sleep in chairs, even after the shelter bought more mats in January.

* Yukon’s single moms are more than twice as likely as the general population to live below the poverty line and live in overcrowded housing. These women face disproportionate risks of becoming victims of violence.

* Whitehorse’s social housing waitlist was over one year long when Canada’s auditor general examined it in 2010. She found it could take up to nine months to be placed on the waitlist, after being vetted by officials. And once on, it’s easy to fall off: applicants are sometimes removed if they fail to contact the corporation once a month.

* One-quarter of the Yukon’s First Nation residents face a core housing need, compared to the general population, at 16 per cent. That means they pay more than 30 per cent of after-tax income on housing, live in housing that needs major repairs, or live in overcrowded conditions.

* Yukon First Nation residents are also four times as likely to be homeless as the general population. They’re twice as likely to have children no longer living with parents. And two-thirds of children taken into care are from First Nation households.

This all comes from a peer-reviewed report prepared by Nick Falvo, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s school of public policy. Called “Poverty Among Plenty,” it offers some constructive recommendations for the territory to help address poverty.

RELATED:Read the full report here.

Unsurprisingly, housing forms an important part of the puzzle. While we often talk about Whitehorse’s housing crisis, it should be crises: there are several.

A shortage of land availability has driven up the price of housing and brought rental vacancies close to zero. But another matter altogether is the hard-to-house residents struggling with alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome disorder and other impairments.

Even with an adequate number of lots on the market, landlords alone can’t be expected to help these people.

The government already provides supportive housing to about 40 residents with mental health diagnoses in Whitehorse. These clients receive a rent subsidy, social-work assistance and leniency before eviction proceedings.

But, to be eligible, clients must be “compliant with medication.” That rules out many hardcore alcoholics, who have trouble obeying these rules.

In other Canadian and U.S. cities, the whole idea of “compliance” is being tossed out in favour of a policy called Housing First. Give someone a place to live, goes the reasoning, and it becomes far easier to dry out and set your life straight.

Places like Seattle have also shown that Housing First is considerably cheaper than keeping hardcore alcoholics on their circuit between the shelter, drunk tank and hospital.

Last year, a coalition of non-profits proposed building enough supportive housing units to provide a home to the Sally Ann’s regulars. Government officials hemmed and hawed until the coalition figured they were being jerked around and withdrew the plan last August.

The territory plans to convert the old Alexander Street home for the elderly into supportive housing for residents with FASD and other cognitive impairments. “There will be no formal stipulation that tenants be ‘compliant with medication,’” states Falvo’s report.

But that plan is on ice. One year after a Health official vowed the building would be opened in “weeks, not months,” the building still sits empty. Housing officials are still calculating whether the building is worth repairing, or should simply be torn down.

Another scheme would see Options for Independence expand its supportive housing operation from six to 24 units. The territory offered the non-profit $2 million in the autumn, but those plans have also been delayed, following an investigation into allegations that the group ran afoul of the Societies Act.

And the territory has vowed to help women fleeing violence by expanding Kaushee’s Place, with a plan to add a 10-unit apartment building that would offer clients stays of up to 18 months. But the territory has only earmarked a small amount of the money needed to complete the project, and there’s no timeline for completion.

The territory’s only acted on bits of Dr. Bruce Beaton’s and Chief James Allen’s report on how to help hardcore alcoholics. Rather than build a downtown sobering centre, as recommended, they built a new drunk tank at the new jail. A new detox centre and shelter have been promised, but there’s no sign of when they’ll be built.

Meanwhile, the territory’s still sitting on $13.5 million in federal affordable-housing money. Ottawa provided the cash several years ago. With no shortage of worthwhile projects to put the money towards, it remains a mystery it hasn’t been spent yet.

This all suggests a dearth of real planning to help the down-and-out. So maybe a new strategy is in order. Cabinet could start by giving Falvo’s report careful consideration.

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