by Bill Thomas
Medicine Hat, Alta. has a great story. In a city of around 61,000, some 875 homeless people have received secure homes in supportive or subsidized housing between 2009 and 2015. Of those, 285 were children.
The city’s first homeless count in 2014 found five people sleeping rough on the street, 30 staying in emergency shelters and 29 people in transitional, rent-geared-to-income accommodation.
If someone becomes homeless in Medicine Hat, that person will be supported to find a permanent residence, not space in an emergency shelter, within 10 days! The resident will have access to employment resources, mental health treatment, if needed, and some form of income support for paying the rent. Medicine Hat has set the bar pretty high for the rest of us.
Still, Yukon is moving forward. Momentum is building.
In February 2011 the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition released a report called “A Home For Everyone: A Housing Action Plan for Whitehorse.” It was based on a year of research by our Housing Task Force – formed in 2008 in response to the increasing stories we were hearing about high rents, unhealthy accommodations and a crowded Salvation Army shelter.
“A Home for Everyone” suggested housing needed to be understood as a continuum recognizing that different people have different housing needs. It demonstrated that the Salvation Army emergency shelter is not housing. It also suggested a lack of options in the areas of transitional housing, housing with supports, affordable rental accommodations and home ownership.
YAPC insisted that the presence and extent of homelessness deserved serious attention in our community. YAPC also insisted that more housing stock and support was necessary if people, particularly those most vulnerable in our community, were to find a home.
Last June, after much consultation and community engagement, a housing action plan for Yukon under the leadership of the Yukon Housing Corporation was announced. The plan is based on three pillars: housing with services, rental housing units and home ownership.
Under housing with services, there will be a needs assessment based on information from service providers as to how much supportive housing stock is available in the community. In addition, information on the cost of providing services will be gathered. The need for a strategy to address homelessness is also identified in the first pillar – housing with services.
An important part of the housing action plan is the values expressed in the document.
People deserve dignity and compassion whatever their circumstances. The plan recognizes that needs and circumstances vary and we must work with that reality. There is no “us” and “them,” there is “all of us.” Everyone is affected; everyone is involved.
Community members and the business community who attended the City of Whitehorse and Kwanlin Dun forums on vulnerable people at risk last year recognized there are too many vulnerable members of our community with significant needs. We cannot tolerate the situation any longer.
So on Feb. 11, we witnessed a piece of history during a press conference held at city hall, where three levels of government jointly announced that they will work together to end homelessness. Thank you, Chief Doris Bill, Mayor Dan Curtis and Premier Darrell Pasloski for your leadership.
At the same time, and from a different quarter, comes movement from the federal government. For the first time, they are providing financial support for communities like Whitehorse to do a “point in time” count on homelessness. These counts will take place in 30 communities across the country before April 30. In Whitehorse, we will be counting not only those who are sleeping rough but people who are couch-surfing and at risk of homelessness.
The count is funded through the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy. The Council of Yukon First Nations is responsible for carrying out the count under the guidance of the Yukon Planning Group on Homelessness, which is made up of representatives of the NGO community, Kwanlin Dun, City of Whitehorse, and Yukon government representatives from Health and Social Services, Justice and the Yukon Housing Corporation.
The count cannot be carried out without extensive engagement of our community partners. First Nations, women groups, youth groups, four levels of government, the faith-based community, the private sector, people with lived experience and service providers, all are essential for the success of the count.
We need a baseline from which to build. We need to better understand who needs what kind of housing and what kind of support. The count will add to the knowledge we already have and help build our community.
Naysayers may suggest that we cannot end homelessness. Naysayers may suggest we cannot accurately count those who may be in need of housing or services. Naysayers may even suggest that our political leaders are not sincere in their promises.
Members of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition and the community are well aware of the potential challenges ahead. Surveys risk being incomplete, people may be counted twice, action may be slow, a good plan may be hard to implement. The list goes on.
So the question becomes is it worth it? The answer is yes. Yes because we know that if Medicine Hat can end homelessness, so can we. The key is to provide appropriate accommodation and supports along the way so that all residents have options that work for them.
We move forward when we agree that all Yukoners deserve safe and stable housing.
I believe the day will come when we face each other and say you are welcome here in this place called Yukon.
I believe the day will come when we, too, fulfil our commitment to end homelessness in our community just as Medicine Hat has. After years of advocacy and building, I think that day is upon us.
Bill Thomas is chair of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition’s housing task force and chair of the Yukon Planning Group on Homelessness.