Colleen Kinch exudes positivity.
“No matter who’s hurting, that can rub off on them: just being positive,” she says.
Kinch brings that passion to work every day as a housing support worker at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter.
“I go in and make sure I say, ‘Good morning,’ to everybody,” she says.
Kinch asks her clients at 405 Alexander St. questions like did you get this, have you done that, where are you going, what’s going on, how have you been feeling and how’s your uncle? She checks in with them regarding their medications and meals. She laughs and cries with them.
Kinch describes to the News the variety of trauma and triumphs her clients have gone through.
“Maybe their childhood wasn’t good. Maybe it’s just too much sadness in their lives. They’re down on their luck. They don’t have somewhere to go. You know, we have a few there that have come and they’ve gotten jobs. They’re getting on their feet,” she says.
“That’s a big part of it.”
Kinch has seen people come and go from the shelter, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It goes so fast,” she says.
“I’ve met so many people, and they respect me as much as I respect them.”
The shelter has been a site of struggle and success for many people as it has changed hands over the years. Kinch has worked there for five years and counting under three different operators: the Salvation Army, the Yukon government and now Connective with the Council of Yukon First Nations as subcontractor.
Connective, which is formally known as Connective Support Society and formerly known as the John Howard Society, operates across British Columbia and the Yukon. The territorial government previously told the News it is paying Connective up to $5.4 million per year for ongoing operations and management of the shelter.
Kinch’s work involves programming at the shelter. Activities include gardening, rock painting, chess, bingo and cribbage.
“We have a community garden in the back where we’re growing dill. We have sunflowers. And I never need to take care of it, because [the clients] do that. They sweep it. They clean it. They water it. They love it,” she says.
The job has its ups and downs.
“Keep your heart open, don’t take anything personally and tomorrow’s a new day,” she says.
“It’s sort of like family.”
According to a recent evaluation by Vink Consulting Inc., the benefits of the shelter outweigh its costs. The shelter serves an average of 37 people with overnight accommodation as well as an average of 53 breakfasts, 109 lunches, 38 suppers and 25 evening sandwiches per day. Approximately 513 unique clients stayed at the shelter between October 2021 to September 2022, with most people staying for short periods of time and 45 individuals spending 90 or more nights there.
The shelter has “low barrier” policies and procedures in place. Per a safety report by House of Wolf & Associates Inc., that means “meeting people where they are at” regardless of substance use, providing supplies for harm reduction and responding in a supportive way to cognitive or developmental limitations, as opposed to using them as a reason to refuse essential services. That approach has ensured people have a place to sleep, which is crucial given the Yukon climate.
The safety report states some people are drawn to the shelter to connect and socialize, which can compromise steps being taken to get off substances and lead to many people engaging in substance use within and around the facility.
The Yukon Coroner’s Service announced a year ago that it is proceeding with an inquest into the deaths of two women on the same day at the shelter in January 2022. Their deaths were found to be the result of toxic illicit drugs.
In total, four people died at the shelter under the Yukon government’s watch and three people died at the shelter since Connective and the Council of Yukon First Nations took over, according to data provided by the coroner.
Politicians at different levels of government have gone back and forth on the shelter in recent letters.
Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee has tried to assure members of the business community that the territorial government takes safety concerns surrounding the shelter “very seriously.” City of Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott has urged the Yukon government to use its power, authority and bigger budget to immediately ramp up its response to longstanding issues and alleged criminal activity around the shelter.
The Yukon RCMP has pledged to up enforcement in the area.
Despite ongoing complaints from businesses and residents about substance use, property damage and physical and sexual harassment, abuse and assault in the area around the shelter, Kinch doesn’t feel unsafe there.
“I’ve worked with such wonderful people,” she says, adding there’s always a few staff on shift who are communicating as a team.
“If there’s things that are going on, then we discuss them. We make a plan or a decision.”
This past January, Kinch became one of dozens of Connective workers to unionize.
Kinch has noticed more relationship building between partners in the community as the facility has evolved under different management over the years. She values partnerships with Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Safe at Home and on-site emergency medical services, among others.
“When I first started there, there were no partners,” she says.
With that support in place now, Kinch feels like she can make a difference in her work by inspiring her clients, reminding them of their wonderful qualities and pointing them in the right direction.
“I love all the partners because they work with [clients], or they come in and they’re wanting to talk with them,” she says.
“It’s all the people that are around that I feel is important.”
Kinch previously put in nearly 17 years at a financial institution before changing jobs. She wanted something outside the classic Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. She likes working weekends and holidays.
“It was just such a total different spectrum,” she says.
“I needed that awesome change.”
This upcoming Christmas Day will be her sixth at the shelter.
“It’s a pleasure,” she says.
For Kinch, every day is full of potential.
“You’ve seen someone that has gone to detox. And they’ve come back and they look so good and so ready. And that is huge to everything when they try so hard. And if they fall, it’s okay. There’s no judging. We’re not ones to judge,” she says.
“All we need to do is open our eyes and our heart and the rest will fall into place.”
Connective has been painting its own portraits of resilience through a photography and storytelling project called “Facing Forward.” The project allows consenting shelter users and staff the space to share their personal experiences and perspectives. It aims to challenge stigma and stereotypes and spark community conversation around those facing barriers.
While Kinch is not part of the project, she agreed to a photo and an interview with the News at the newsroom on Aug. 4.
Connective’s project will be on display at the Whitehorse Public Library throughout the month of August. A digital exhibition can be found on Connective’s website.
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org