A tidy shelter keeps ‘em clean and sober

Want to help Whitehorse’s homeless, hardcore alcoholics? Forget about another government study, says Judy Lightening, the manager of the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter.

Want to help Whitehorse’s homeless, hardcore alcoholics? Forget about another government study, says Judy Lightening, the manager of the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter.

“They study these poor people to death. All they need is a bloody place to stay,” she said. “There’s not much to it. If you have no place to live, you drink on the street.”

So give them a place to live – where they can drink.

It’s a controversial solution that’s bound to provoke criticism. In Seattle, a similar project was dubbed “Bunks for Drunks” by critics who wondered why the state should subsidize destructive behavior.

But Seattle now estimates it saves $4 million annually by taking some of the city’s hardest-to-house clients off the circuit between drunk tank, emergency room and temporary shelter.

The facility also means there are fewer homeless alcoholics cadging for change downtown, passing out in parks and urinating in alleys.

And, not least, the project appears to improve the health of its clients. Many drink less. Some quit the bottle entirely.

Wet housing challenges the conventional wisdom that many homeless people choose to sleep on the street, and that quitting drinking is primarily a matter of willpower. It turns out that coping with alcoholism and its attendant ills is a lot easier with a roof over your head.

Anchorage is now considering a similar facility. In Canada, Victoria’s Cool Aid Society and Toronto’s Seaton House also provide wet housing.

And a bevy of Yukon nonprofits, operating under the banner of the Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition, want to establish such a facility in Whitehorse. They already have a proposed site, design plans and a building team lined up.

What’s still missing is the money to make the plan reality. And that will require government support.

The coalition has submitted a proposal to the Yukon Housing Corporation, which is administering federal affordable housing money.

If the plan becomes reality, a 20-unit building would stand on Sixth Avenue near Whitehorse’s clay cliffs that would look a lot like a hotel, with some important differences.

Like at a hotel, the building would have a central entrance and a front desk to allow staff to keep tabs on clients and guests. Each client would have a small room with a kitchen and bathroom.

Unlike a hotel, the ground floor would include office space for addictions counsellors, visiting nurses and other frontline workers, as well as a communal kitchen and other common spaces.

Drinking would not be allowed in much of the building. But what clients do in their rooms is their own business, provided they don’t fight.

The project is being billed as “supportive housing” – a broader term that includes both wet and dry living arrangements.

At one end of the spectrum is Toronto’s Seaton House, where alcoholics are administered mugs of strong wine at regular intervals, based on the reasoning that they will do less harm to themselves and others in a controlled environment.

At the other end are projects like Yellowknife’s Bailey House, where clients must first pass a detoxification program before being admitted and are not permitted to drink.

Supportive housing, in different forms, is found in every jurisdiction adjacent to the Yukon. Anchorage has Akeela House. Yellowknife, as mentioned, has Bailey House. Victoria has several supportive housing projects run by the Cool Aid Society.

“Whitehorse is really, really behind,” said Kate Mechan, a youth outreach worker with Many Rivers Counselling. She’s helping spearhead the push for supportive housing with Laird Herbert, who works at a group home.

Mechan has spent several years working in the No Fixed Address outreach van, which provides food, clothing, clean needles and counselling to the homeless in Whitehorse. It didn’t take long before she was struck by how Whitehorse’s housing shortage conspired against clients who wanted to straighten up.

It’s hard to get back on your feet without a good night’s sleep, clean clothes and a solid meal in your belly.

“The more I work here, the more I realize that the housing crisis is at the heart of what’s going on with people,” said Mechan.

And alcohol abuse is just the start of health problems faced by the homeless. Intravenous drug use is also prevalent – shooting cocaine is particularly popular in Whitehorse – which results in the homeless being nine times more likely to contract HIV, according to the Canadian AIDS Society. That’s why Patricia Bacon, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions, lauds the supportive housing project.

The Salvation Army’s shelter was never intended to be permanent housing. But, for lack of anything else, that’s what it’s become for about 20 regular clients.

They’re predominantly First Nation, and predominantly single men. As such, they stand little chance at obtaining social housing, which is doled out on a preferential basis to single-parent families and women fleeing abusive relationships.

As Bacon says, politicians are far more likely to commit money towards helping women and children over middle-aged aboriginal men.

“They’re the least ‘sexy’ of the group,” she said. “We can all get our support behind women and children.”

Yet it’s these middle-aged men who Lightening finds she spends most her time with at the emergency shelter. She calls them her “boys,” and she knows most of them don’t stand a chance of finding housing in town as it stands.

Occasionally one will sober up, get a job and secure an apartment. But this usually doesn’t last long.

Maybe the weather will turn foul one day and his friends ask for a place to crash. It’s hard to turn down a street brother.

It doesn’t take long before 20 are crammed into the apartment. Somebody’s brought a bottle. Things get rowdy, and an appliance or fixture ends up broken. Eviction soon follows.

Whitehorse used to have more low-end housing that would take a chance and rent to the Sally Anne boys. But with the rental market being as tight as it is, that’s changed.

The city has become increasingly gentrified. Slums are making way for condos. Gone are Takhini Bluffs and the Pioneer.

“Now there’s just about the Chilkoot,” said Lightening. “We’ve got all those people and nowhere for them to go.”

A shelter’s no substitute for a home. At the Salvation Army, clients aren’t allowed to leave personal belongings during the day.

And with the shelter’s 10 beds frequently full, there’s no telling where you will sleep. It could be on a sofa, or a chair, or the floor. The shelter’s held as many as 24 people some nights.

Drinking isn’t allowed at the shelter, so clients sneak off to nearby alleys to quaff alcohol.

Ask the 41-year-old Gwitch’in man seated in a plastic lawn chair outside the Sally Anne what he needs to get on his feet and he says a place to stay. He usually crashes at the shelter, but while the weather’s good he camps in the bush.

It’s about 4 p.m. on this hot, blue-skied afternoon, and he’s just finished chugging his first drink of the day – an apple cider – in a back alley. It probably won’t be his last.

When a friend in a checkered hoodie passes by, he explains he spent 16 hours in the drunk tank. He claims he blew 450 mg/l.

“They were supposed to send me to the hospital for blowing that high,” he said.

He admits he’s an alcoholic. Does he want to quit? “I’d love to. I’ve got a brand-new baby girl. But I can’t quit cold turkey. I’d rather have a place to go to and taper off.”

The supportive housing project’s total cost is expected to be $1.8 million. The housing corporation is being asked to front half of that, with the remainder to be leveraged from a bank once government funding is in place.

The cut-rate cost of the building would come largely thanks to volunteer labour on the part of the architect and building team.

The project would require government support to operate – the shelter allowance offered by social assistance isn’t enough to pay the building’s staff. But various nonprofits are willing to provide some in-kind labour if needed, said Mechan.

She envisions the project run by a society that would have a board of directors made up of nonprofit workers, neighbours and clients themselves.

Whether the government buys in remains to be seen. But the timing could be right.

Following the coroner’s inquest into the death of Raymond Silverfox in police custody, politicians of all stripes swore they would work to improve the treatment of homeless, hardcore alcoholics.

Here could be their chance.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com