A shelter is more than a roof, says Hart

The Yukon Party plans to build a homeless shelter in Whitehorse. But not yet. Glenn Hart, minister of Health and Social Services, knows this position will provoke accusations of foot dragging.

The Yukon Party plans to build a homeless shelter in Whitehorse. But not yet.

Glenn Hart, minister of Health and Social Services, knows this position will provoke accusations of foot dragging. After all, the Yukon Party has been in power for eight years.

For two years, it has been urged to support a proposal for a youth shelter. The territory has balked at the proposal.

And the government is now being asked to back another proposal by a coalition of nonprofits who want to house Whitehorse’s homeless alcoholics. Hart has said he supports this project “in principle,” but the government hasn’t yet committed required resources to the plan.

Last week, during a legislative motion that called on the territory to support the coalition’s supportive housing plan, the Yukon Party used its time to brag about past accomplishments. Then it used its majority to water down the motion so it was meaningless.

Then, in a surprising turnaround, the government this week tabled a motion of its own, calling on itself to build a homeless shelter.

Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell fleshed-out the motion with changes that won unanimous support. The shelter would offer programming for youth and adults. Clients would be able to use it for more than one evening at a time. Counselling would be available. And the facility would provide 24-hour support.

Questions remain. Chief among them: when would the shelter be built?

It’s too early to say, said Hart. But he’s directed staff to give the proposed shelter “focused attention,” he said. An announcement would be made in the “near future”- possibly during a social inclusion symposium to be held in January.

Why wait? As the NDP’s Steve Cardiff put it, “A fraction of the money this government has mismanaged could have seen a youth shelter realized years ago.”

But a rushed plan could create unexpected problems, Hart told the News in an interview.

A youth shelter needs adequate supervision, security and programming.

The Angel’s Nest proposal, made by the Youth of Today Society, lacked details of how to manage misbehaving clients, said Hart.

While touring youth shelters in Vancouver and St. John’s, Newfoundland, Hart was struck by the high levels of security. Would-be clients were kept behind locked doors and Plexiglas windows until they were properly assessed.

Clients couldn’t just “come in and sit.” If they wanted help, they needed to participate in programming. And follow the rules.

While the proponents of Angel’s Nest “have their hearts in the right place,” said Hart, he feared the shelter may, without proper supports, result in clients “carrying on disruptive behaviour in the community.”

“Just suddenly putting a roof over someone’s head isn’t going to solve the problem,” he said.

Hart also insists that an “evidence-based” approach must be taken in developing any shelter. He’s currently waiting on several reports. One, prepared by Yukon’s statistics bureau, looks at how many people are homeless in Whitehorse and how they came to be that way. That report should be ready in two to eight weeks.

Hart’s also waiting for a report by a task force that’s looking at ways to help the Yukon’s hard-core alcoholics. That report, due by the end of December, may determine whether the government supports the coalition’s plan to provide supportive housing for alcoholics, said Hart.

“We’ve been accused of dragging our feet and offering up the excuse that we need to study the problem,” Hart told the legislature. “We’ve been accused of not understanding the seriousness of the problem.

“Even a comment I made last week about a few people choosing street life was seized upon and thrown back at me as evidence that I or we don’t care. It is not a constructive debate to have bits and pieces of issues pulled apart in an attempt to score political points.

“Now, we also need our own solutions to our own unique problems. In order to do that, we need to know what our problems are. We need solid research to back up the policies and programs that will lead to solutions.”

Cardiff, for one, doesn’t buy it. “I know the government has studied, and studied, and studied,” he said. “What I want to see is action.”

The Yukon Party’s John Edzerza says this attitude is irresponsible. “It’s almost as if the NDP is in full support of enabling homelessness as opposed to really finding a solution and dealing with it productively.”

But, in the end, the motion passed with unanimous support.

The territorial government offers four beds for homeless youth. But these are temporary arrangements, provided on a night-by-night basis. Each morning, clients must clear out with their belongings.

The territory has never had to turn away homeless youth because these beds were full, said Hart. However, he acknowledged there are likely couch-surfing youth that never approach government for help.

The Salvation Army provides an emergency shelter for homeless in Whitehorse. Its 10 beds are usually full each night, so unlucky clients end up sleeping in chairs or on the floor.

Kaushee’s Place offers shelter, for up to 30 days, to women fleeing violence. Longer-term housing is harder to find and usually has long wait lists.

The Yukon Party has spent more than $100 million on affordable housing, noted Steve Nordick, the government backbencher who proposed the motion.

The most recent addition will be 32 units of social housing for single parents in Riverdale. That project, projected to cost $10.5 million, is expected to open by the end of December.

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