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4 shelter deaths occurred under Yukon government’s watch; 3 people died under new management: coroner

Coroner sheds light on mortalities as government releases two “safety and wellness” reports on shelter
Emergency vehicles respond to an incident at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter in May 2022. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

Four people died at the Whitehorse Emergency 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 the Yukon’s coroner.

Chief coroner Heather Jones of the Yukon Coroner’s Service told the News by email those numbers might not be a complete record. The deaths she has been made aware of were reportable under the Coroners Act.

The government ran the shelter from Jan. 31, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2022, when it was handed over to the two organizations.

Representatives from Connective, the operator, and the Council of Yukon First Nations, the sub-contractor, joined Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee and officials from her department during a May 4 press conference at a Yukon legislature media room to release two “safety and wellness” reports on the shelter.

The coroner provided the data on deaths at the shelter to the News following the press conference.

The report by House of Wolf and Associates Inc. looked at safety and community perspectives, while the Vink Consulting Inc. report assessed to what extent the shelter met community needs, measured its outcomes and evaluated its cost-effectiveness.

“It’s about humans, and it is incredibly important for government to calculate what the cost is, and then what the benefit is, to make sure that we are providing services that are beneficial to Yukoners and that are beneficial when we are spending taxpayers’ dollars,” McPhee said.

Assessing needs

The Vink Consulting Inc. report is based on work done in summer 2022. It notes the shelter is providing benefits that outweigh its costs.

“However, the shelter is not as cost effective as alternative solutions of providing longer-term shelter guests with housing, along with supports where needed to maintain housing,” reads the report.

“The present value of the outcomes in the past year and those expected in the future because of activities that occurred in the past year is $9,233,099. With a cost of $4,376,098, the social return ratio is therefore 2.11:1 — meaning that there was a $2.11 social return for every dollar invested.”

Some key material outcomes for shelter clients in the report are the “avoidance of death from drug toxicity as a result of monitoring and administration of naloxone” and “avoidance of death from exposure to the elements.”

McPhee said the shelter is a place where essential needs such as housing, support and services are being met.

“We cannot enhance or improve what we don’t know about,” she said.

“405 Alexander [St.] can appear at times like a lightning rod for the complex and serious and challenging issues that face our communities today across the Yukon territory, but we know that the complexities of current social and economic realities aren’t limited to one street corner in Whitehorse. The way to move forward is to unite our efforts to work steadfastly towards achieving wellness and health in all of our communities.”

READ MORE: Health and Social Services struggles to make problems disappear at Whitehorse shelter

McPhee gave a brief overview of the shelter’s work.

“A number of the improvements include a cultural support worker to build trust between staff and service usual users, which is an important step toward improving feelings of support and safety for First Nations service users. There is an elder knowledge keeper in residence who provides cultural guidance and supports. There are drop-in services and supports including harm reduction, crisis intervention and intervention. There are ongoing supports including emergency medical services, home care and mental wellness and substance use outreach services provided,” she said.

“There are medical professionals, physicians and nurses providing services on site. There are additional programs and supports offered by other partners, and there’s a team of highly valued shelter staff with access to a range of training supports in place.”

The report indicates the shelter needs to better operationalize trauma-informed services, infuse culturally appropriate ways throughout the shelter’s approach and screen out individuals accessing the shelter who have their own housing.

According to the report, 45 individuals spent 90 nights or more at the shelter between October 2021 and September 2022. Of those clients, staff identified that 12 need supportive housing, 19 need low-barrier supported housing, four need a managed alcohol program, six need assisted living, nine need subsidized housing and one needs market housing.

“These individuals consumed a disproportionately large share of the bed nights at the shelter,” reads the report.

“If these individuals received housing as an alternative to shelter, the shelter would have only had an average occupancy of under seven people per night, rather than 40 people.”

More than 513 unique clients stayed at the shelter, with most of those stays being short, during the 12-month period.

The report reveals that some adults experiencing homelessness — women, in particular — are not accessing the shelter due to safety concerns. Women make up 45 per cent of the by-name list of people experiencing homelessness in Whitehorse, but only comprise 26 per cent of shelter clients.

READ MORE: Ratio of Yukon women dying of drug toxicity higher than national average: data

“As a result, women are more likely to experience hidden forms of homelessness, and cycle through whatever options they have including couch-surfing, staying in unhealthy relationships or trading sex for shelter to stay housed,” reads the report.

“It should be noted that where it is safe to do so, staying with family or friends is a positive outcome rather than staying in shelter. For women fleeing domestic violence, there is also an alternate shelter that they can access.”

According to the report, the shelter is a low-barrier facility, meaning clients can be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but no substance use is permitted on the premises.

Moving forward

The report by House of Wolf and Associates Inc. notes the shelter is seen as a place to gather: if not to access shelter resources, then to socialize. Twenty-nine participants indicated there was an absence of cultural and recreational things to do in the facility and surrounding area.

“Once at the facility, few supervised, structured or engagement activities are available,” reads the report.

The report stresses the strength of shelter staff.

“The front-line staff at 405 Alexander St. are the heart of operations — their commitment to their clients and community was palpable throughout the engagement process,” reads the report.

“The strain between need and availability of resources; the consistent exposure to violence, trauma, and suffering; compounded by publicity and public scrutiny with respect to 405 Alexander St. and its surrounding areas are a significant concern for staff capital, well-being and retention.”

READ MORE: Whitehorse shelter workers among newly unionized Connective staff in the Yukon

According to the report, the shelter consistently represents 10 per cent or more of all calls for RCMP service in the downtown core, which is a disproportionate number of requests for police attendance at a single location compared to the population in the area.

Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston said the organizations are on the “right track.”

He commented on the extra support Indigenous shelter clients need when it comes to food, cultural practices and worldviews.

“We can’t just be putting people into boxes which we have been since our history has been made here in the territory,” he said.

“If they don’t find themselves in a place of comfort or security or safety or love and kindness, chances are, the support is not going to resonate to the level that we need it to.”

READ MORE: CYFN Grand Chief set on refocusing Whitehorse shelter

The report charts a path forward in the form of recommendations.

According to the report, Council of Yukon First Nations and Connective must “come to a focused decision on the level and style of barrier for the facility, and clearly communicate this, as well as central purpose and programs, to clients and the community at large.”

The report points to increasing access to programs including emergency shelter services, harm reduction, substitution programs, substance use treatment and aftercare, recreation and cultural engagement as necessary; although whether all these activities should occur at the shelter depends on other factors such as staffing.

“We know it is vital that we continue to learn and ensure that the services being offered evolve while the needs of the community and service users continue to evolve. These reports will prove to be a valuable resource as we continue to craft the future of 405 Alexander [St.] and build upon the great work that predates our assumption of operations,” Connective CEO Mark Miller said.

“If we are to engage in fruitful discussions around improving the outcomes of Whitehorse’s most vulnerable, it is critical that we broaden the conversation. 405 Alexander [St.] plays a specific and significant role in a much larger, more complex system of care and support — one that sees multiple structural and individual factors contributing to homelessness, unemployment, mental health and substance use challenges and many of the other issues affecting this community and so many others.”

Miller acknowledged that “any death is a tragedy.”

“I would also want to highlight how many people perhaps have been saved because of the shelter services,” he said.

READ MORE: Whitehorse shelter unlikely place to find sobriety, advocates say

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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